I’m often asked where to get the best Peking duck. This question comes up all year round, but more often during the holidays. And especially now, with Lunar New Year celebrations on the horizon in February.
Strangers flood into my DMs, demanding to know which restaurants prepare the duck and whether it’s served with pancake wraps or bao. They inquire about the price and whether you need to order in advance.
I was made to feel like a personal concierge for Peking duck, and it’s a position I don’t take lightly. Roast duck is a dish that was popular with emperors. The Qianlong Emperor of China is rumored to have eaten roast duck eight times in two weeks during his reign in the 18th century. Peking duck even played a role in world politics when Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai served the dish to Henry Kissinger in the 1970s.
Inspired by the many curious minds that have reached out over the past few weeks, I set out to see if my usual favorite, East Valley Boulevard’s Ji Rong Peking Duck, was still the best option. There, the duck is presented as a mound of roasted meat on a platter, surrounded by layers of crispy skin. The drumsticks are separated on another plate, next to ramekins with spring onions, cucumber cubes, sweet bean sauce and a steamer basket full of paper-thin chun bing pancakes.
On my last visit, the meat was disappointingly a little drier and the skin wasn’t as crispy as I remembered. Meizhou Dongpo in Arcadia still serves top-notch Peking duck. But this week a new favorite has emerged.
Na’s Peking duck from Bistro Na’s
The Na’s Peking duck is served to the table whole, its shiny skin the color of golden honey. It looks incredibly bulging, as if it could spontaneously burst open at any moment. After audible gasps from the guests and lots of photos, it is carried back to the kitchen to be sliced.
A few minutes later, a chef with a toque and a crisp white chef’s jacket appears and arranges the sliced duck neatly on several plates. He serves the duck with a bowl of sugar and instructs you to dip the meat. The shiny skin has a kind of ethereal crunchiness, with a texture that cracks and then melts. The sugar seems to expand and soften the skin’s fullness all at once, giving it the addictive properties of your favorite bag of potato chips.
While you eat the meat dipped in sugar, the chef tends to a cart that he has pushed against the table. It’s packed with a bamboo steamer basket full of chun bing and an antique-looking wooden box containing bowls of sliced scallions, cucumbers, a sweet flour sauce and micro bull’s blood in a deep shade of purple.
He then prepares his first duck wrap for each person at the table by spreading a little sauce on a pancake and then layering two pieces of meat on top. He adds cucumber, a few green onions and some bull’s blood. Then he wraps the pancake into a neat roll and presents it like a gift.
The pancake is thin enough to be translucent, pleasantly chewy and mild in flavor. Bistro Na’s chef Tian Yong prepares his own sauce for the duck using Huadiao rice wine, sesame oil and sugar. It’s sweet but not overpowering and much more subtle than the hoisin sauce served with duck in many other restaurants. The mild but nutty Bull’s Blood changes with other greens depending on the season.
“Peking Duck I created the traditional flavor of Peking duck from ancient Beijing, a delicacy that was once only available in the royal palace during the Qing Dynasty,” Yong said.
Yong estimates he spent two years developing his cooking method before finally adding the duck to the menu in late November. He started with just three ducks a day and gradually increased the number to five and now eight. To order the duck, you must reserve a table and order the dish at least two days in advance.
“The restriction is necessary due to the complex preparation process and our limited space,” Yong said.
The repetitive, painstaking process takes three days and includes marinating the duck, scalding the skin, and hanging and drying the duck multiple times before roasting.
The duck is served in three steps, first with crispy skin and meat, then wrapped in the pancake and finally in a soup or as fried bones. When ordering, please specify the third preparation. I prefer the soup, which serves as a comforting change between bites of luscious crispy skin. The gamey undertones of the duck are subtle but present in the milky broth, served in a small cup full of soup and wilted cabbage.
The whole duck, pancakes and trimmings are $98. The soup and fried bones are available at an additional cost.
I suspect I’ll feel like royalty when the chef prepares and presents the first duck wrap. It was a feeling that lasted until lunch but quickly subsided on the drive home in the driver’s seat of my Prius.
Duck by duck
The duck at Duck, Eric Greenspan’s new virtual restaurant, is not a traditional Peking duck. But it’s an equally great duck that suits a celebration. Greenspan’s duck comes in a box via Postmates, with various seasonings designed to mimic the traditional accompaniments of Peking duck.
After spending half a decade creating virtual restaurants like Mr. Beast Burger and an entire virtual food court called Alt/Grub/Faction, the once top chef at Patina restaurant turned his attention to duck.
“Even as I was doing the ghost kitchen, I was thinking about what the high-end delivery game could look like,” Greenspan said. “It has to be something that people share and that is experiential. Duck!”
Duck is a dish that Greenspan frequently served on his tasting menus at Patina and was featured heavily at his later restaurant, Foundry.
“It’s not Peking duck, but it’s inspired by it,” he said. “I wanted to make it clear that it’s not a Chinese presentation, but at the same time give little hints so people know I’m paying homage to her.”
Greenspan only uses ducks from Joe Jurgielewicz & Son, Ltd., a company that sources its birds from farms in Pennsylvania. He roasts the breasts until the fat in the skin dissolves and becomes crispy, then coats them with reduced apple cider vinegar, black pepper, rice wine vinegar and a little gelatin made from the duck confit. The meat, rarely cooked and thinly sliced, seems saturated with its own juices.
Greenspan brines his duck legs in an anise-rich mixture of salt, pepper and anise seeds and slowly cooks them in duck fat. He then glazes the legs with a sauce made from garlic caramelized in brown sugar, rice wine vinegar and soy. The sweet glaze is reminiscent of the small sugar dish served in a more traditional Peking duck presentation and enhances the flavor of the meat. He serves the boneless leg meat like a pile of crushed duck candy.
As entertaining as the duck is on its own, Greenspan’s conditions are perhaps the most entertaining elements of the presentation. Instead of Chun Bing, there are thin buckwheat crepes enriched with duck fat and brown butter. They’re flexible and sturdy enough to hold a bunch of duck, making them the ideal meat container.
Shaved Chinese cabbage, Belgian endive and apples in a rice wine vinegar dressing add welcome freshness and replace the traditional spring onion and cucumber. There is also a sparkling honey mustard and a plum sauce refined with baked apples. And for a little crunch, there’s a cup of Duck-Ah, a playful twist on the Crunchy Condition Dukkah. Greenspan’s version features crispy fried duck skin, toasted hazelnuts, scallions and garlic.
Greenspan plans to offer the duck once or twice a month through Postmates, priced at $85 per set. Sometimes he makes duck wings, deep fried and doused with lemon pepper and five spice. He also wants to work with different chefs in the city.
“Once the fantasy train leaves the station, it’s difficult to get it back in,” he said.
The next Duck delivery is scheduled for January. 25. Availability and updates will be posted on the Duck Instagram page.
Where do you get Peking duck?
Bistro Na’s, 9055 Las Tunas Drive, #105, Temple City, (626) 557-4179, bistronas.com
Ji Rong Peking Duck, 8450 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 280-8600, jirongpekingduck.com