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China Star, Fair City Mall in Fairfax - Strip-Mall Szechuan Monument to the Shadow of Peter Chang

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[posted on eGullet 2003-2004]

This outstanding find is in the same shopping center as the Fair City Cinemas, one of the best houses for independent film in all of Virginia (Little River Turnpike and Pickett Road, sort of).

China Star is right up there near the top of all Szechuan restaurants in the DC area, the key word being Szechuan, incorrectly dissed as China's Tar, hence the name.

The Scallion Pancake is hors classe, served in a globular puff and just an unbelievable combination with the pickled cabbage and broccoli that are served as a small amuse-gueule (along with spicy peanuts which are equally irresistible).

Fish with Sour Mustard is a must, the filets of white fish simmering in a quasi-hot-pot of burbling hoodoo spices and chiles. You might not think it necessary or even desirable to order Marinated Duck Feet with such a dish, but it's beautiful combination when the two dishes are worked together: the duck feet served with root vegetables (carrots, turnip-like things), in a cold vinaigrette sauce, and presented in a locked-lid apothecary jar. You need the sweetness and coolness of this dish to neutralize the fires of the first, and they work wonderfully in tandem.

Crystal Shrimp is a fine, glossy plate of good shrimp, and Shredded Pork with Dried Tofu is another dish that manages to be soulful without excessive spicing.

On another visit, this restaurant proved useful for people I know ranging in age from 7 to 80, and even their Americanized fare such as Beef with Broccoli and Lemon Chicken are a strong cut above what you would normally find in a local restaurant. I've found "authentic" Chinese restaurants that do a great Chinese menu, but completely drop the ball on the Americanized stuff; not here. By my experience, you can order the entire menu with confidence.

Shredded Pork with Green Pepper is a completely different dish than the Shredded Pork with Dried Tofu, hotter, deeply sauced and homestyle.

Man, there's so much left I haven't explored on this menu. Look at this stuff: Five Flavored Smoke Shredded Tofu, Ma La Diced Rabbit, Pork Scallion Pie, Triple Stuffed Bean Curd Skin, Spicy Peppercorn Pig Feet in Hot Pot, Beef Triple and Pig Blood with Bean Sprouts, Braised Fish, Spicy and Sour Squid Roll, the list goes on.

Tsing Taos, $3.25, and you'll need them, too.

I was there today with a Chinese woman who asked the waiter why they weren't that crowded for lunch. The reply? "Because people are in a hurry for lunch, and it's difficult to eat Szechuan food in ten minutes and then rush out. When people do come, it's often in large groups, and we're busy for dinner every night of the week."

China Star is a huge addition to the Northern Virginia chinese scene - many Chinese people feel that for spicy food, it's the best Chinese restaurant around, and I've seen no reason not to defer to their wisdom and experience.

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[posted on eGullet 2003-2004]

It has been a long day, with a lot of exercise, no breakfast and no lunch. Starving and despondent after staring down an empty refrigerator, it was time for China Star carryout.

The Spicy Emperor Duck was in one of those clear-plastic quart containers. I opened it and I think there was an eye and a beak staring back at me, but I'm not quite sure as it's offered in a dark brown sauce.

I dumped the whole thing into a mixing bowl and had at it, with the same gusto and elegance as a hungry gorilla eating a full rack of ribs. Wielding a fork in my right hand and picking up bony chunks with my left, feeling the same desperation as Lucy and Ethel trying to pluck chocolates off the conveyor belt, I scarfed it like a hyena, finishing the entire meal in about ten minutes.

And now I sit here, looking at a plate full of bones, and an empty bowl of broth, and I realize that I might have just eaten duck testicles.

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The heretofore confounding menus at China Star have been consolidated, going from 25 appetizers to 11, eliminating the "dim sum" category entirely, and now listing the "entrees," the "home style entrees" and "house specials" on the same sheet of paper.

The Americanized menu remains unchanged, as does the ferocity of the Szechuan dishes. I have written the producers of Fear Factor, suggesting that contestants eat an entire order of Fish With Sour Mustard for dinner, and then attempt to drive the entire periphery of the beltway the next morning in heavy rush-hour traffic while drinking a hot cup of coffee.

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It has been reported on chowhound that China Star lost their chef, which explains the consolidated menu & the disappearance of most of the labor intensive dishes.

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I recently read an article in the Chinese-language "New Times" that the #2 chef at China Star, Chef Liu, is busily developing his own specialized menu, which should be rolled out in the coming weeks. I go to China Star pretty regularly, and will happily post as soon as I have encountered it.

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People have been posting here and "elsewhere" about the perceived decline of quality at China Star ever since Chef Zhang moved on to TemptAsian. Having dined there tonight I can proclaim that rumors of China Star's death have been greatly exaggerated. While Chef Liu has yet to come up with a large number of "signature" dishes, there are a few unusual dishes that are worth trying out. Also, the more standard dishes continue to be made very well.

Our dinner tonight consisted of the General Kwan beef, a dish of "crispy duck Sichuan style from the (Chinese language) specials menu, and the old bamboo tower roasted fish (though it is called something like roast fish with scallions and has no bamboo tower anymore. All of it was excellent, though the duck's flavor was rather subtle (I am hoping that the flavors will develop in the fridge, since we brought a lot of leftovers home).

So, bottom line is that no one should feel that China Star is now a no-go because Zhang has left. Certainly the fact that the place was packed--mostly with Chinese--when we got there at 6pm, implies that the local Chinese population is not staying away.

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My wife ordered food from here last not because she "heard it was good". I stopped and picked it up on my way home and liked what I saw, a barren rectangular room with none of seemingly mandatory fish tanks beads obscuring the doorway. In fact there were a couple cases of beer and a lone, aged refrigerator filled with, MORE BEER. Most importantly, it smelled like good food.

I had never heard of this place prior to last night, and I had never read this thread. My wife called me on my cellphone as I was furiously changing lanes at 6mph on 395, attempting to read me the selections. I wasn't paying attention and heard something about pork and lemongrass and panfried noodles. I told her, fine, whatever, I gotta go.

I picked up the food and jumped back into my commuter cell for the rest of my journey. Within seconds the car REEKED of spice. My eyes were watering the last five miles.

I got home and unpacked the bag. My wife's container contained some kind of orange chicken dish. Fare for humans. I opened my container. I don't see any noodles....."Honey, where's my noodle thing"

The Americanized menu remains unchanged, as does the ferocity of the Szechuan dishes. I have written the producers of Fear Factor, suggesting that contestants eat an entire order of Fish With Sour Mustard for dinner, and then attempt to drive the entire periphery of the beltway the next morning in heavy rush-hour traffic while drinking a hot cup of coffee.
"I got you some wierd beef thing, they said it was hot. I know you like hot," she said. Nice.

I ate the last half of my meal with a wet towel draped over my head it was so freaking hot. But it was a good kind of heat, the kind that doesn't burn your tongue, but subtly roasts you from the inside, like you inadvertantly consumed a small fission reactor. I slept uncomfortably.

This morning, I jumped back in the commuter cell and got a 20 oz coffee for the journey. Somewhere around the 15th mile or fortieth minute, I lost track, things got a little touch and go. I was desperate for a large stand of bushes to sprout up in the poorly named "fast lane" of 395. I made it to work with seconds to spare and had an experience similar to THIS

In a couple of weeks I'll take the Rockwellian challenge and try the Fish with Sour Mustard. But I'll do it on some kind of commuter holiday, maybe Columbus Day.

*Edited to fix link*

Edited by B.A.R.

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It turns out this is the meal that keeps on giving. My wife decided to try some of the leftovers for lunch yesterday. Although she doesn't particularly relish spicy food, she does tolerate it well. But the spice wasn't the issue.

About four bites into her lunch she began to get upset, extending a piece of beef on a fork towards me to review. "What the hell is this!?", she shrieked. I glanced at the piece of meat and it did appear odd. It certainly did not look like muscle. My wife jumped up and ran to the sink, thoroughly washing the piece of meat. I am far more of a physical sciences guy, but my wife is a bological sciences girl and she had to know what the meat was.

After a thorough washing and dissection, she came to the conclusion that it was a section of heart right below the valve. There were a couple veins/arteries about 1-2mm in diameter extending up from the muscle, which was very dense ansd sinewy. She's 99.9% sure it was heart.

Now, neither of us has an aversion to eating organs and/or other "less desirable" cuts of meat. My wife was pissed that she wasn't expecting it. She said it was supposed to be beef, and cow heart was not beef! I tried to calm her down, telling her that it goes to show how authentic the cuisine was. My wife wants no part of it, and now swears that she'll never eat Chinese food again.

My gut feeling is we might not have gotten the "American" version. Has anyone ever had a similar experience? As a final note, the food still tasted great, whatever the hell it was!

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After a thorough washing and dissection, she came to the conclusion that it was a section of heart right below the valve. There were a couple veins/arteries about 1-2mm in diameter extending up from the muscle, which was very dense ansd sinewy. She's 99.9% sure it was heart.

Now, neither of us has an aversion to eating organs and/or other "less desirable" cuts of meat. My wife was pissed that she wasn't expecting it. She said it was supposed to be beef, and cow heart was not beef! I tried to calm her down, telling her that it goes to show how authentic the cuisine was. My wife wants no part of it, and now swears that she'll never eat Chinese food again.

My gut feeling is we might not have gotten the "American" version. Has anyone ever had a similar experience? As a final note, the food still tasted great, whatever the hell it was!

What was the name of this dish? Was it from the "American" menu or the "Chinese" menu?

ScotteeM

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Just checked with the Misses. She sqaid she ordered from the Chef's special's section of the carryout menu. It was called Beef in a Hot Pot. And she said there was no Chinese writing on the menu that she remembers.

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As a last minute thing before taking off tomorrow for China my partner and I headed for dinner to China Star. We had not been there since Chef Zhang arrived at China Gourmet, and we were shocked at how empty the place was, but fortunately the food has not lost its edge. We had several old standbys--the 'roasted' fish with the bamboo tower, the chicken with chilis, and the dry-braised string beans. The fish was as good as ever, and the chicken was probably the best we have had there. The beans were good, but not great, but this is a dish that seems to vary a lot from one time to the next in all restaurants.

So, with China Gourmet packed--and slow--on weekends, China Star remains a very good alternative.

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Stopped by China Star on a recent Sunday afternoon, hoping it could serve as an adequate substitute now that Chef Zhang seems to have disappeared from the area. While it couldn't match the meal I experienced a month earlier at China Gourmet, it did do nicely on its own.

We started with the Five Spiced Sliced Beef and the Nan Shan Rice Gluten. It was interesting to note that all of their appetizers are served cold. The beef was refreshing at first bite, cool and with strong notes of cilantro. Two bites in, and the heat really began to takeover - and quickly. But the flavor contrast was there, and the dish was enjoyed in its entirety. The Nan Shan Rice Gluten consisted of small cubes of rice gluten (think rice jello) served in a spicy dark sauce, dusted with peanuts and the tiniest of shrimp. It was good, but really only worked when it was covered in the spicy sauce -- and the extra spiciness wasn't needed on the heels of the sliced beef.

For entrees, we went with the scallion fried fish and the spicy capsicum diced chicken. Both were very good. The scallion fried fish was almost as good as the version enjoyed at China Gourmet prior to Zhang's departure. It had good flavor, was tender and well battered (but not over battered). It was missing some of the subtlety of Zhang's version, and didn't seem to have any cilantro. However, it was better than a version of the dish I had at TemptAsian (when Zhang was there) which was too salty.

The spicy capsicum diced chicken was tiny flecks of chicken (about the size of pencil erasers) mixed with a spicy brown sauce and diced peppers. It was savory without being salty, and is something I'd order again.

We asked about scallion pancakes and were told they didn't have any. Has anyone seen a version of this dish lately? It is missed. While China Star's menu is relatively small compared to other Chinese restaurants, there are still plenty of options -- and it continues to serve as a very good source of szechuan cooking for Northern Virginia.

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We asked about scallion pancakes and were told they didn't have any.  Has anyone seen a version of this dish lately?  It is missed.
A&J has a fairly traditional rendition. If you go to the Annandale location, the Chinese supermarket in the same plaza has several versions available in the refrigerator case for home heating. The puffy Zhang version were, according to PandaHugga, not traditional at all.

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Thanks. I'm anxious to try A&J.

I haven't heard of Szechuan Village. Where is that?

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Thanks.  I'm anxious to try A&J. 

I haven't heard of Szechuan Village.  Where is that?

Szechuan Village is the reincarnation of the old Formosa Cafe which was once located near the foot of the 23rd St. restaurant row in Crystal City. A good place it was. Anyway, SV is located near Dulles Airport, on the south side of Rt. 50 in the last shopping strip before it crosses Rt. 28.

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I got carryout from China Star on Friday night. The Basilman said he didn't want any "ox anus" so I went with hot & sour soup, fried dumplings, spring rolls and the outstanding salt & pepper eggplant. Thank God that is still on the menu.

I really, really miss those puffy scallion pancakes. I didn't make it to China Gourmet before the chef split, damn it. :)

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I have been to China Star twice in the last week, once for take-out, once eat-in. The food is good. Both times I had the fuzzy beef appetizer, okay they call it something like Spced Beef with Cilantro. It is almost the exact same thing as Peter Changs. We also had the Spicy Rabbit app, it is delicious, but not worth the trouble of spitting out all those little bones. We had the calamari and lychee which is written in Chinese on the front of the menu, that was tasty, spicy and sweet. We have also had Salt and Pepper Shrimp (OK), Roasted Fish (Good but scary looking) and a few aother things that were good but have excaped my memory. Granted, it is not equal to Chef Changs' cooking, but it is mighty tasty for Schezwan Chinese.

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I had lunch at China Star on Saturday afternoon and was pleasantly surprised with the food. There was just two of us so we did not get a chance to sample the entire menu, but we enjoyed what we had. We ordered an appetizer of Five Spiced Sliced Beef and two mains, Fish with Sour Mustard and Scallion Fried Fish. The scallion fish is their version of Peter Chang's cumin fish that we were all raving about at TemptAsian.

Based on this one visit I think this would be a great place for a $20-Tuesday to explore the menu more.

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I got carryout from China Star on Friday night. The Basilman said he didn't want any "ox anus" so I went with hot & sour soup, fried dumplings, spring rolls and the outstanding salt & pepper eggplant. Thank God that is still on the menu.
How is the salt and pepper eggplant prepared? I really like the garlic eggplant hot pot. It's cooked with meat (chicken?) accents and scallions in a dark garlic sauce, greasy with chili oil. Yum.

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How is the salt and pepper eggplant prepared?
If it's like the salt and pepper egglpant at China Star in the Chang era, as I recall it's a very lightly battered, thin-sliced eggplant deep fried and dressed with plenty of salt and chili peppers and some cilantro. Crisp, salty, chili-hot, cilantro-y. It was one of the best dishes I ever had at a Chinese restaurant.

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Based on this one visit I think this would be a great place for a $20-Tuesday to explore the menu more.

You know I'm in. Have I mentioned my addiction to the Szechuan Chili Chicken?

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If it's like the salt and pepper egglpant at China Star in the Chang era, as I recall it's a very lightly battered, thin-sliced eggplant deep fried and dressed with plenty of salt and chili peppers and some cilantro. Crisp, salty, chili-hot, cilantro-y. It was one of the best dishes I ever had at a Chinese restaurant.

Excellent description!

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If it's like the salt and pepper egglpant at China Star in the Chang era, as I recall it's a very lightly battered, thin-sliced eggplant deep fried and dressed with plenty of salt and chili peppers and some cilantro. Crisp, salty, chili-hot, cilantro-y. It was one of the best dishes I ever had at a Chinese restaurant.

Wow, that sounds like something I should be trying verrrrrry soon, like dinner tonight? Or prominently featured in an upcoming $20 Tuesday dinner?

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