Walking down Shekou’s infamous Chicken Street on a hot summer’s day or a breezy evening is always an interesting experience. It has a plethora of experiences to offer up including a few too many craft beer places, flower shops, electric bike stores, seedy shot bars and hole-in-the-wall dining establishments. Never did anyone think that a 1950s American diner would join this cacophonous mix. Yet, then there was Starling Diner.
Image via Master D
This isn’t Starling’s first go-around either, at least in name. Starling originally began as a LA-style Smashburger food truck in Fumin area operated by the Magpie Group. It also existed as a take-out window at Jiaochangwei beach. The burger itself also hung around on Magpie and Chicadee’s respective menus. It seemed like Chef Cadence Gao just couldn’t let the burger go. Now, in collaboration with Adam Gottschalk, the former proprietor of Ron Mexico in Beijing and currently Keg Room in Shuiwei, Starling is ready to nest again. The question is: Does this bird fly?
Make no mistake, Starling is truly an American-style diner. The furniture, music, neon lights, and crowd transports its clientele to a bygone era where rock n’ roll and hoop skirts made fathers scared to let their daughters ride in cars with boys. The atmosphere is spot-on, the only things missing are icecream soda floats and obsoletely discriminatory signage. Sitting down at one of Starling’s brightly colored booths, complete with The Jetsons playing on the television, and Elvis droning in the background feels like a space-time compression machine.
Image via That’s
Anyone walking out of the humidity and into the brisk air-conditioning might think that they have been transported to another era in a strange land only now seen in television shows. Seating is limited and tight. If you want to eat, get there early because the booths and, even, the counter seats fill up fast. We arrived just before noon as seating had opened, and it was already full! The wait is long because Starling has found the magic formula to attract the gamut of shenzhenren including expats from various backgrounds and locals. As a result, the chatter is lively and the experience feels distinctly and uniquely international, making it feel like Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Brooklyn.
The kitchen is chaotic because freshness is the name of the game. If the cooking grease isn’t from the animal that was just cooked, then it doesn’t belong in the food. Diners scan a QR code at the table, which generates a ticket. Tickets come out and Gottschalk yells out orders to Gao who directs the chefs as they navigate the tumultuous world of brunch. It’s all part of the atmosphere. It feels like Kitchen Nightmares meets Back to the Future.
The downside to all of this is that sometimes tickets and orders are missed. It’s a throw back but can also feel frustrating for diners who have become used to automated systems and efficiency. Another downside to this is that sometimes food is burned or undercooked as was the respective case with my waffles and with the three-cheese omelet we ordered. Having been to the diner several times, However, I can attest that it is more hit than miss when it comes to food.
Poor ripped bananas and burnt toast. Image via Daniel Romero
The exhaustion of the chefs comes at the price of quality at times because the experience is built on the idea that the weekend lunch-rush is as authentic an experience as possible. This insanity also sometimes led to some burned dishes.
As usual with restaurants from Magpie, the flavors are decadent. Gao stopped caring about subtlety a long time ago and stripped naked before the taste gods. At times it feels a bit too much, especially if you deign to overeat like we did for this review. However, most of the dishes are good. Ludicrously so.
The Starling burger once again takes center stage with an explosion of juiciness and saltiness. We tried the triple patty drenched with gravy, cheese and bacon. It was a messy bit of licentious debauchery. The patties felt a bit small when compared to places like Shake Shack, but the flavor profile and meat-quality made up for the thickness of patty.
The chicken and waffles, another American diner mainstay, are excellent. The chicken is the right juxtaposition of crispy and juicy without being dry or greasy, as is usually the case with fried chicken. The waffles were a little burned on the exterior, but fluffy and buttery on the inside, which went perfectly with the maple syrup.
Chicken and waffles. Image via Daniel Romero
The steak and eggs were a hit and a miss. As with all of Magpie’s restaurants, the eggs are tasty. Order them fried, scrambled, or in an omelet, it’s hard to go wrong. Just be sure to specify how you like your eggs because they typically cook them to run a bit, which my colleague didn’t enjoy. The steak felt a bit too rubbery for my taste.
Side dishes were also fun to try! The onion rings were golden, crispy, and flavorful, but were served with ranch (who eats onion rings with ranch sauce!?). Ask for the homemade barbecue sauce. My colleague particularly enjoyed the tater tots and sweet potato fries, which were both fantastic. As were the mac and cheese balls – but a bit on the overcooked side.
The highlight of my meal was the peanut butter milkshake with a shot of whiskey. Even now, I am not sure how to describe it. All I know is that I can’t look that straw in the face anymore after how hard I drank from it.
It’s not said on the menu, but the understanding, as it goes with most American-style fare, is that this is not rabbit food and never will be. Nor is it healthy food. Eating at Starling is excellent for indulging one’s vices, but most dishes should be considered calorie bombs, vegan-unfriendly, gluten enabled, and handled with caution.
Starling is fun, eccentric, and stands out in terms of the atmosphere and the food. It is a must-visit for any Americans who miss home or those who want to try authentic, lecherous food of the US.
The lack of vegan and healthy options will be daunting and off-putting to some. In addition, the kitchen systems and quality control still need some refining.
Better known as Molly’s human, Danny ‘Omega’ Romero is a revered figure in Shenzhen. He loves fitness, boat parties, slam poetry, the Marvel universe, is a karaoke enthusiast and a professional educator.
See listing for Starling.
[Cover image via That’s]