When economic development officials extol the University at Buffalo's benefits to Western New York, they should brag about how the university's large Chinese student population has resulted in better Chinese food here.
More than 1,000 Chinese students are enrolled at UB and their hunger sustains places like Gin Gin (3244 Sheridan Drive), Uncle John's No. 1 (267 Grover Cleveland Highway) and Peking Quick One (359 Somerville Ave., Tonawanda). All have "home-style" menus with Chinatown-worthy gems amid a jumble of good, average and mediocre dishes.
Hopefully one or more will grow into a first-rate Chinese restaurant, with swift, efficient service and a dud-free menu. For now, at least, Buffalo's fans of authentic Chinese don't have to brave an international border to find satisfaction.
Case in point: China Star. Around the corner from the Amherst Chuck E. Cheese, Lili Wang runs a bare-bones but clean place with no alcohol. Sometimes it smells like the Subway restaurant next door, but that annoyance soon fades.
Besides the usual American Chinese, moo shu and broccoli beef, there's about 40 dishes rarely seen on menus here. Some may be phantoms; the menu's Soup Dumplings were repeatedly unavailable, as was Stewed Lamb in Hot Bean Sauce the lunchtime we requested it. (Wang said she is redoing the menu.)
Some aren't even listed, like the hot pots -- plates of meat, seafood, tofu and vegetables to swish through seasoned broth -- that Chinese folks were enjoying every time we visited.
We ordered a mixture of the familiar and the unusual, and found misses among them, for sure, including a scallion pancake ($4.25) with a crackerlike texture and scant scallions, and a crispy fried bean curd ($9.95) that lacked crispness.
Yet China Star was solid across the board, offering terrific versions of spicy Sichuan dishes and other classics of Chinese regional cuisines that are hard to find between Manhattan and Toronto. The lunch specials ($6.49) include duck, pumpkin, spare ribs and fish dishes.
Four dishes that stunned eaters:
*Braised Sliced Beef (or Fish) in Chili Sauce ($14.95), ordered with beef, is a steaming cauldron of Sichuan-peppercorn-spiked broth teeming with Napa cabbage, leeks and other vegetables, topped with tender slices of beef, cilantro, chili oil and more crushed chili.
Spicy, yes, including a hint of numbing from the Sichuan pepper, but so flavorful we didn't care. "It's hotter than I like but I can't stop," said my wife, Cat, "and the veggies are good, which I didn't expect."
*Cumin Lamb ($16.95) is thin slices of lamb coated in copious toasted cumin and more before a quick stir-fry, dosed with crushed red chile, cilantro and sliced raw onion, like Indian-Chinese fusion by way of Mongolia. Intense and salty, it needed white rice for balance, but was a palpable hit, provoking one tablemate to exclaim, "Why didn't anyone tell me this was here?"
*Chong Qing Spicy Chicken ($12.95) is thinly sliced chicken coated in spices and fried to a dry, chewy texture, then tossed in a welter of whole dried chiles, scallions and Sichuan peppercorns. It seemed overcooked to one eater, but others finished the meal hunting through the chile thicket with chopsticks, looking for missed morsels.
*Sauteed Spicy Peppery with Pork Intestine (or Crab) ($14.95) gave me pause, because I've only eaten intestines as sausage casings. I asked for crab. They were out. I considered my professional responsibilities and asked for intestines.
Glad I had the guts. The crispy loops, like small onion rings but crunchier and richer, taste like meaty pork rinds. They're aggressively seasoned with a blend of spices much like the Chong Qing chicken, in a similar nest of stir-fried whole chile peppers and other aromatics.
Honorable mentions include Red Cooking Pork with Chestnut ($10.95), sweet, tender cubes of braised medium-fatty pork belly with spinach and starchy chestnuts. Also the chicken with sour cabbage lunch ($6.49), paired savory chicken morsels with tangy, pickled green cabbage.
Sauteed spinach with fresh garlic ($7.25) was a light, simple dish that would have satisfied on an Italian menu as well. Cold cucumber with scallion sauce ($5.25) was quick-pickled cucumbers with cilantro and chile flakes.
We passed over the chicken feet and duck tongue, for now.
(7 out of 10)
Bare-bones room serving up authentic regional Chinese gems, few duds and no alcohol.
WHERE: 4001 Sheridan Drive, Amherst (631-7198)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, "cold delicacies" $1.95-$10.50; noodle soups and entrees, $6.25-$19.95
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
Editor's note: The News is changing to a numerical scale to weigh restaurants. Instead of one to four stars, restaurants will be rated from 1 ("stay home") to 10 ("among the best"), with 5 being "worth a try." The number grade reflects the quality of food, service, ambience and value, with the food given most emphasis.