Last Saturday, the cards fell in place for me to have a ridiculously Asian-food packed Virginia weekend with friends. For my first stop, I met up at China Star with Twitter friends @handpecked (D) and @PensFan2166 (J), who clued me in to this purveyor of Szechuan food in Fairfax after my raves over the ma la menu at Great Wall. Normally I wouldn't stray this far away out of my zombie-apocalypse emergency plan safety zone, but I felt I was in good hands with D & J, who may just know even more about zombie-killin' than I do (although they did sign off on my plan to arm myself with samurai swords - after all, as zombie expert Max Brooks advised, "Blades don't need reloading").
The one-room dining area had pretty bare bones decor with just a few ethnic touches, which is about what I would expect from a strip mall establishment. The service was no-nonsense and efficient.
China Star offers both a menu of more common Chinese food (think General Tso's Chicken, Beef with Broccoli, Moo Shu Pork, etc.) and a menu of authentic Szechuan food. For the most part, we stuck to the latter. Because he is a man after my own heart, J got a cold appetizer of sliced beef and beef tripe (below). I think it would have tasted even better hot, but it was still good, with a lot of flavor, just the slightest bit of spice and a tiny bit of the numbness that comes from eating Szechuan (Sichuan) peppercorns.
I got the ma la diced rabbit (below), again, served cold, and again with a little bit of heat and numbing factor. I liked this dish, but the meat was a little gamey and it was a bit difficult to eat - rabbit has little bones with little meat on them, so eating it can be somewhat indelicate. Luckily, my eating companions didn't seem to be too put off by me picking around my food.
D got the cold salty duck (below), which was a little unsettling, appearance-wise, but nice. The meat was really juicy and well-seasoned (surprisingly not overly salty).
While we all dug into the entrees family-style, we each made our own selection for the table. J decided to pass up the spice and went with the cashew chicken (below) off the regular menu, a very competently executed take on a classic, and not as greasy as you typically find at the typical Americanized Chinese restaurant.
D and I, being the hardcore women that we are (J eventually caved and had a few bites), went straight for the good stuff, the ma po bean curd (below). It was pretty glorious, with silky tofu that melted in my mouth, and a spicy, garlicky sauce that I used to drown my rice. It didn't have quite the numbing factor that the Great Wall version does, but it does have a fair amount of heat, and 10 pounds of flavor in a 5-pound bag. It was by far my favorite dish of the meal.
D also ordered the shredded pork with bitter melon, a.k.a. bitter cucumber (below). The greens had a very interesting flavor, obviously bitter. At first, I wasn't sure I liked it, but with each successive bite, wanted more. I really liked it in a complete bite with the other components of the dish, as the juiciness of the pork and the spice in from the red chilis offset the bitterness. On top of its strangely addictive taste, medicinally, bitter melon is a powerhouse (as D put it, it's like the Chuck Norris of fruit), said to aid in digestion, as well as help to prevent/counteract Type II diabetes and treat malaria.
I had definitely started off my Saturday food adventure on a good foot - the food was all very tasty (I've been dreaming about that ma po bean curd), and the company was even better. Fellow food lovers D & J took turns making me laugh and terrifying me with talk of zombies and furry conventions in Pittsburgh (and the horrific possibility of a combination of the two). After taking our sweet time over the mounds of tastiness we had ordered, we packed it up and headed to my second food adventure of the day...