Friday, February 11, 2005

Temple of Duck

Some foods can only be had in their far away, native lands, prepared by the experienced hands of wizened old cooks: mopani worms in Zimbabwe, or live monkey brain near the Temple of Doom, where Indiana Jones went with Steven Spielberg's wife and that cute Asian kid.

Just as you won't find a great pastrami in a diner with a ten page menu, one must seek out a specialist for great Peking duck. For me, that means driving far beyond the backwaters of Orange County and into San Gabriel Province, practically annexed by the greatest concentration of Chinese peoples outside of Asia.

In this mighty valley once roamed the American outpost of a legendary Beijing duck house called Quaanjude, which sadly closed down several years ago. Picking up the mantle is a relative newcomer: Lu Din Gee Cafe, where seven of us gathered recently for a duck feast.

Some places, like Empress Seafood will bring out a whole roasted duck, head and all, and make a show of carving it tableside. LDG carves the bird in the kitchen, and only serves the breast meat and the crispy skin in the first course. The legs and other parts are served in a later soup course. Tasting of roasted duck, the soup here is very good. Whoever said duck soup is easy never made a good one.

The skin and breast meat arrives at the table accompanied by thin flour pancakes, a salty black bean paste called tian mian jiang, and a plate of julienned scallion and cucumber. Some places serve a fluffy white steamed bun instead of the thin pancake. I prefer this more traditional form. The pancake is smeared lightly with bean paste, then wrapped around pieces of skin and meat, proving that the Chinese also invented burritos. The best part: tasting like duck chicharron, the perfectly roasted skin gave up what little duck fat remained and reminded me how much better I like duck than, say, turkey, or chicken.

Note to self: learn how to roast a halfway presentable duck by next Thanksgiving.

A perfect Peking duck is the culinary equivalent of simultaneously juggling a bowling ball, a chainsaw, and a wet paintbrush: a balance of conflicting requirements. The prized, crispy skin must be defatted sufficiently, yet the meat below should be greaseless. A humid oven initially helps to defat, but later inhibits crisping. The breast meat cooks faster than the leg meat, meaning the breast will be dry when the thigh is perfect.

Involving air compressors, plenty of refrigerator space, and a few days of preparation, Peking duck is difficult to pull off well at home. If you care to try, click here to find out more. I can make one every day for the rest of my life and I won't ever pull one off as good as Lu Din Gee Cafe. Screw it - next Thanksgiving, we're going to a restaurant for duck, that's why they're there.

Dessert included a passionfruit jelly made with konjac. I saw the molds at IKEA!

A sweet dessert made of peas, something the Japanese would call yokan

Lu Din Gee Cafe
1039 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA


Anonymous FoodZealot said...

Professor, thanks for the writeup. Does this cafe serve a stirfry course? Or is it duck chicharron wraps and duck soup only?

4/20/2005 11:58:00 AM  

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