4725 Calhoun, Houston, TX, 77004
January 2004–Like a pimple, the Chinese Star insults the eye of passers by everyday on Calhoun Road as students go on the hunt to acquire the ever elusive creature commonly known as the parking space. The white decrepit little shopping center which houses the Chinese Star is oh so conveniently located adjacent to the student parking lot occupying an area which could house another twenty to thirty spaces. Sweltering under the mid-day sun for forty-five minutes searching for a parking space I quickly pounced on the little eyesore. “This is ridiculous! The parking lot goes all the way around this little insignificant shopping center, which contains just another dime a dozen Chinese restaurant. They should just pave it over and expand the parking lot,” I had fumed to myself during one of many quests for a parking space only to lose a prospective spot to a cut throat student dashing ahead and robbing me of my elusive treasure, but my derogatory attitude towards the Chinese Star came to an about face on a fateful Tuesday afternoon.
After an hour and a half of down blocks, running front kicks, and punches all in the ever so comfortable climbing stance in Karate class on the second Tuesday of the new 1003 school year my newly acquired friend Richard, who I had met in my Karate and Archaeology classes, convinced me after our strenuous lesson over the Chayon Ryu style to dine in the Chinese Star for lunch that day. Richard was a senior and had attended the University of Houston for three years and was eager to “teach me the ropes” in the alien world of college life, and the very first lesson was in fine dining. Also joining us for lunch was the lovely Nancy who I had also met through Karate and have eaten lunch with every Tuesday and Thursday ever since. Karate was held in the Hofheinz Pavilion on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:30 in the morning located on the exact opposite side of the campus as the Chinese Star. My already low opinion of the Chinese Star gnawed at me incessantly upon the realization of the never ending death march I would have to undertake in order to reach our destination. My cracking and crunching knees from the hour and a half of having them bent in the climbing stance throbbed while the noon day sun bombarded us with its unending, sweltering heat. Under normal circumstances such a walk wouldn’t bother me in the least bit, having been in football most of my life I had grown accustomed to much harder training and more difficult walks or runs, but having been practicing my form and technique in Karate with my muscles aching from an eternity of stretches, kicks, and endless stances walking with bent knees on the hard wood floor of the basketball court; the thought of having to go so far out of my way and eat at the Chinese Star put a damper on my day to say the least. After what seemed to be the longest and most painful ten minute walk of my life with my muscles aching and the sweltering August sun pounding its heat down upon our backs we finally reached the infamous bane of my college parking experience…The Chinese Star.
Like a true gentleman, Richard opened the glass door and motioned Nancy and I in, and upon entering the quaint establishment I was immersed into the flood of people crammed into the restaurant. Students, teacher assistants, and even professors were all crunched together in this hole in the wall! The room pulsated from the sheer booming of the crowd’s conversations. The restaurant was a living mass of people eating, talking, and ordering their food. The aroma of freshly fried rice and sizzling chicken, pork, fish, shrimp, and vegetables danced in my nostrils tantalizing the senses. As I took my place in the line leading towards the door to order my food my eyes were treated to a menagerie of images and objects to gaze upon. To the left of the “order line” is a counter swathed in a plethora of different classical Chinese décor from blue porcelain turtles, to wood carvings, and a forest of potted bamboo plants each for sale with a tiny white price sticker. To the right was the main dining area with a great many tables of both round and rectangular design scrunched together covering the area like a wood floor leaving just enough room for a person to squeeze between cracks of chairs. On the wall there were a few prints of classic Chinese paintings from what looked to be the Song Dynasty, if my memory of Chinese art history serves right, as well as a rather lovely portrait of a young Chinese girl with her hair up in two cute little buns and with a beautiful green dress flowing from her shoulders down to her feet almost sparkles in its brilliant aged glory as she sits and watches the diners from the fading portrait. On the far end of the wall near the corner leading to the front of the eating place was a great plaque of a Crusade style English Knight. On both sides of the carved image of the knight were actual morning stars. The long wooden handles were held in place by the plaque and the long foreboding chain simply hung loosely at an angle from the top of the tilted handle with the spiked ball dangling maliciously from the end of the chain. This unique and odd quirk in the décor of the other wise strictly Chinese atmosphere was an interesting contrast for the otherwise unified artistic and aesthetic theme of the little Chinese eatery.
For lunch I had ordered the General Tso’s Chicken; Richard and Nancy each got the Special of the Day which was beef with steamed vegetables, rice, and an egg roll. We found a recently deserted table and quickly took our place amongst the crowded mass and began to churn our own waves in the ocean of conversations taking place in the restaurant. While Nancy and I waited patiently for our food Richard indulged us with a little history on the Chinese Star. As it turns out I wasn’t the only person who had despised the Chinese Star for occupying potential parking spaces. A few years before I had come to the University of Houston the Chinese Star almost meet a grisly fate when it was to be paved over to expand parking for the university. Word of the delicatessen’s plight soon reached the masses and the fraternities, sororities, faculty, and even a VERY large number of Alumni cried out in protest against the loss of this jewel in the rough of the parking lot. Through the efforts of these concerned peoples the Chinese Star was saved from almost certain demise preserving it for future generations.
Soon I heard the dainty cashier call out, “number 67”, and I scurried to the back of the restaurant to claim the prize of my patience, a steaming hot plate of fried chicken smothered with spices, Thai red-peppers, and drenched in an abrasive red sauce, all served with a bowl of fried rice. My nostrils burned and singed before I could even take a bite of the steaming hot piece of chicken covered in a VERY spicy Thai red pepper sauce held warily between my chopsticks. The overpowering flavor of the chicken danced on my tongue, and lured me in with a sweet flavor but then blitzed with the robust spiciness’ of the Thai pepper. Much to my surprise the food was absolutely breathtaking and remarkably cheap. I savored each bite of the meal, each word of our conversations, each aroma, and each little piece of art in the restaurant from the tiny blue porcelain turtle statues to the various renditions of the Buddha. Like a sponge I engrossed my self which each miniscule experience my mind and body could handle, but soon my body gave way with the distinct signal of a swollen stomach that I couldn’t handle even the tiniest bit more.
For a long time we all sat at the table, Nancy rubbed her dainty stomach, Richard leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, while I finished the last few drops of my tea. We all then gathered our belongings, tidied our tabled and headed towards the glass doors with swollen stomachs and a smile of satisfaction on each of our faces. Now once a week on either a Tuesday or Thursday I sit at a long table close to the middle of the room with Richard, Nancy, and now Ariel and Tamara, Nancy’s friends and mine too now, drinking my iced tea and eating my General Tso’s Chicken with my chopsticks; simply relaxing and enjoying the feeling of unity in this little bit of Nirvana. Being a freshman and not knowing anyone at UH I felt out of place and alone, but some how that little Chinese restaurant made me feel at home and not just a student of a university, but instead a member of a community of people who attend, teach, and work at the University of Houston. This inconspicuous little hole in the wall called the Chinese Star must be the best kept secret the University of Houston has to offer. Like a geode, the Chinese Star is the gem which rests inconspicuously in the center of the rocky inhospitable parking lot of the University of Houston.