When you wander around Chinatown sometimes, the neighborhood can seem like a garden of duck. Ruddy, plump Cantonese roast duck hangs next to the barbecued pork and suckling pig in the windows of what seems like half the storefronts on Broadway. If you peek into back doors, you can see racks and racks of freshly salted poultry hung to dry in breezeways, pale as ghost ducks; hear the steady thunk of ducks being hacked into chopstick-friendly chunks. Certain alleys are alive with the glorious high aroma of garlic, star anise and charring, sugary poultry drippings that usually signifies ducks in the oven, and when the breeze is right, you can smell ducks on the wind as far away as City Hall.
Although the number of duck vendors is stupendous, I've been buying all my ducks at the same place for years. But in Singapore a couple of weeks ago, at the splendidly named Fatty Ox Duck Eating House, I had some duck that was just spectacular, with a two-level crunch, a hint of chile and the extraordinarily rich flavor roast pork sometimes gets when the coating of fat renders right back into the meat itself. And the thought nagged at me--what if I were missing out on a better duck right at home?
Last week, I spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon flitting from one deli to another in Chinatown, buying a single roast duck at each. (Currently there is a fad for something called pi pa duck, which is a whole duck split and flattened to look a little like a Chinese mandolin before it is roasted, but though the method adds considerably to the duck's crunch, it does so at no small expense in succulence. In each case, I went for the regular rather than the extra-crispy.) The ducks cost between $8.50 and $9.50 apiece--competition is high enough that price isn't really a factor in choosing a barbecue place.
I attracted the kind of stares you'd expect if you walked into a roast duck place obviously carrying five ducks from other delis. I slopped duck sauce on my shoes. I brought 10 ducks back to my house for an informal comparative duck tasting with some beer and some friends, and it was at least as much fun as any wine tasting I've ever been to. (I attribute this to the lack of spit buckets.)
Before I started to round up ducks, I was almost positive I knew who the winner would be. Sam Woo has built something of an empire on its recipe for roast duck, with tendrils reaching into every Chinese community in the Southland: first just barbecue shops, then marble-encrusted seafood restaurants, noodle shops and bare-bones Hong Kong-style dives--the entire spectrum of Cantonese eats.
I've been buying roast ducks at one branch of Sam Woo's or another for years, and I know by heart the high notes of garlic and star anise, and the exotic aromatics that add a bit of wildness to the gamy pungency of the meat. I thought I was grabbing another duck when I first bit into a piece of Sam Woo's last week, but I recognized the provenance in a second.
A Sam Woo duck--probably any of these ducks--is just fine on a buffet table at a party, surrounded by such other Chinatown takeout favorites as seaweed salad, pressed bean curd, candied peanuts with anchovies and cold sesame noodles. But compared to some of the other ducks, it is relatively unappealing, with its flabby layer of fat and extreme softness of flesh, and the spices seemed to conceal rather than to enhance the duck's flavor. I'll still buy a Sam Woo duck sometimes--like a Big Mac, it is what it is--but now I'll know why.
The Golden City duck, which was the last one I picked up on the Chinatown run, was a popular favorite at first, because of its sweet, chewy flesh, the crackly skin above its warm, unctuous layer of fat and the gentle but pervasive aroma of garlic and spice, but its rating started to fall as the duck cooled off, and it ended up somewhere toward the high middle of the flock.
The duck from United Poultry, a popular fresh seafood and poultry shop, had a nice, roasted taste to its skin and a satisfactory crunch, but the meat itself lacked flavor; the duck from G.W. Seafood, another store that sells mostly fresh fish, was quite garlicky, and less fatty than greasy, with solid flesh that might remind you of good picnic fried chicken. The Cambodian-Chinese deli Kim Tar also had picnic-type duck, paler than the other entries, mild though garlicky, and an interesting, sharply vinegared dipping sauce.
Lieng Hoa, a Chinese-Vietnamese deli that sells fish and exotic simmered innards in addition to barbecue, had a duck with a mild smoky flavor, maybe one or two more seasonings than the rest and tender, full-flavored meat: a solid entry. Hop Woo's duck seemed a little smoky but fairly undistinguished.
Ocean Seafood Takeout, a small shop below the Cantonese banquet place, made the most controversial duck of the tasting--fat almost completely rendered out of it, firm flesh, strong notes of anise, fruit peel and char, and a sharp, indelibly salty juiciness that some people loathed but which I liked pretty well. Ocean's thick sweet-sour duck sauce, almost the texture of applesauce, was by far the best of the evening, and the contrast of the salt and the sweet was just about perfect.
But the top ducks were almost unanimous favorites. Number two was the duck from the Cambodian deli Mekong, which was dark, intense, soft-fleshed and rich, more mildly spiced than the others while somehow giving the impression of lean, intensely flavored wild duck; number one was from Lucky Deli--a sweet, garlicky bird, tinged with char, as smoke-ruddy as great barbecue and somehow both chewy and filled with juice. Lucky may have been in Chinatown so long that some of us have taken the place for granted, but in duck roasting as in so many things, perhaps the old-fashioned ways are still best.
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Where to Go:
G.W. Market, 672 N. Spring St., Los Angeles, (213) 624-0277.
Golden City B.B.Q. Restaurant, 960 N. Hill St., Los Angeles, (213) 253-2660.
Hop Woo B.B.Q. Restaurant, 855 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 617-3038.
Kim Tar, 677 1/2 N. Spring St., Los Angeles, (213) 687-7491.
Lieng Hoa B.B.Q., 721 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 625-5001.
Lucky Deli, 706 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 625-7847.
Mekong Restaurant, 637 N. Spring St., Los Angeles, (213) 680-2776.
Ocean Seafood Takeout, 747 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 687-3088.
Sam Woo Bar-B-Que Restaurant, 803 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 687-7238.
United Poultry, 736 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 624-3788.