Dining | Goin’ Down to Chinatown: For outstanding Chinese fare, ask for the Five Star Cuisine menu not entirely in English 

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Until I had dinner at a restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown, I hadn’t realized that some Chinese restaurants offer one menu for their Chinese customers and another for non-Chinese. The food in most Chinese restaurants in America is so dumbed-down to appeal to American palates that you don’t even have to worry about looking for the sacred Chinese menu, because there isn’t one. But in certain authentically Chinese eateries—Little World comes to mind—you’ll want to ask if there’s a special, more adventurous menu to be had.

Such is the case at Five Star Cuisine in West Valley. Dining at Five Star feels like a trip to a big-city Chinatown restaurant. It has the right look: spacious, no-frills dining rooms with lots of red highlights (the color red is considered good luck in China). It has the right vibe: Bustling tables are filled with Chinese patrons clearly enjoying themselves. And it even has the right sound: Very little English is spoken here, but karaoke’s been known to break out late at night.

You know the minute you step through the front door and take a look at the daily specials that you’ve come to the right place. I could make no sense whatsoever of the specials—written entirely in Chinese characters—except for the prices. I was exactly where I wanted to be—in a truly Chinese Chinese restaurant, where ham fried rice wasn’t the most popular item on the menu.

Longing to taste real Chinese food, I laid down some ground rules for the gaggle of adolescent boys with us: No ham fried rice. No Kung Pao chicken. No cheese wontons. No P.F. Chang-style lettuce wraps. In fact, no anything that we’ve all eaten before. Well, these kids were troupers. In no time at all, Nate was sipping his first ever hot-and-sour soup, C.J. was wrestling with his first steamed clam and Jeremy was tempting the rest of us to try shark-fin soup. They all tried the jellyfish. I couldn’t have been more proud of those guys.

Prices are so low at Five Star Cuisine that you can order with abandon, sharing food family style—and if a particular item (pickled cabbage with pork stomach, for example) doesn’t rock everyone’s world, well, you’re not out much. But it’s also easy to get bogged down with such an extensive menu. There are at least 150 a-la-carte menu items, along with price-fixe dinner options ($68 for six courses or $98 for eight, served family style). So I recommend just diving in to get things moving.

Hot-and-sour soup is only $4.95 for four servings, although our gracious server brought us extra and it was excellent. The table split a half Peking duck ($13), chopped into manageably sized pieces as an appetizer, and even the teenage boys liked the crispy, lacquered duck skin. I found the meat slightly dry, but loved the subtle anise flavor, washed down with a cold Tsingtao beer ($4). By the way, Five Star Cuisine only carries one white wine and one red (Redwood Creek), and they were out of white when we visited. However, you can bring your own, and here’s a bonus: They don’t charge a corkage fee.

Shark-fin soup isn’t something you see every day, and for that reason alone, I suggest springing for it, even though it is the one relatively high-priced item on the Five Star Cuisine menu. Shark fin with shredded chicken is $20 for four servings, and just how much more decadent could you get than shark fin with abalone, sea cucumber and fish-stomach soup ($25)? Another good option for abalone lovers like me is abalone-chicken porridge ($5.95). Rice porridge at Five Star Cuisine comes in large communal bowls and can easily be shared by a small group. We especially liked the silky, glutinous texture, glistening snow-white color and rich flavor of the beef porridge ($5.95). It was so delectable our 12-year old insisted we bring home the leftovers.

Ma Po tofu ($6.95) is a traditional Szechuan dish of cubed tofu with shredded pork in a spicy broth tasting of sesame, chilis and Chinese five-spice. At Five Star Cuisine it arrives at the table directly from the kitchen in its own small metal wok, which probably has to do less with presentation and more with functionality and simplicity. Hot-pot dishes like taro with frog hot pot ($10.95) or anchovy-chicken hot pot ($7.95) also come to table in the metal pots they were cooked in.

Chinese barbecue spare ribs ($6.96) were a hit with all of us, but especially the kids, whereas Hong Kong-style clams in black-bean sauce ($11.95) appealed mostly to the adults—the flavor of fermented black beans not being universally loved. I wasn’t quite prepared for the roast pork with jellyfish (think Jell-O with cartilage) served cold which, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit, threw me a bit more than the kids. Throughout dinner our English-challenged server—although his English is much better than my Hakka—hustled from table to table, keeping fresh, delicious food rotating and glasses filled. Despite the small staff of a single server and one manager on a Friday night, at no time did service seem slow at Five Star Cuisine—probably because we were all just so damned happily immersed in some of Utah’s finest Chinese food.

FIVE STAR CUISINE 3361 S. Redwood Road, 972-1151. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

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