Peking duck is crispy roasted duck from Beijing, the capital of China. There are certain things you just can’t find outside their source of origin without some compromise on authenticity. Unfortunately, Peking duck is one of them. For one, the white, plump force-fed ducks are only obtainable in China. The feeding method is not only cruel but also extremely tedious and wasteful, making it both ethically and commercially unfeasible here in the US.
But, it doesn’t mean we can’t strive to replicate a similar experience with less extravagant ingredients. Two brothers from Beijing brought their duck-roasting expertise to Coppell, and set up home in an unassuming strip mall on MacArthur and Belt Line. So far, this has been the only place I can find in DFW that serves a proper Peking duck.
The Art of Peking Duck
In Beijing, roast duck is not your everyday family dinner. It can easily set you back around 30 US Dollars per person if you want the real deal. What makes it so expensive: a painstakingly methodical process of raising, preparing, and roasting the ducks. It all begins with utilizing a special breed: white, stocky, and incredibly meaty. Just like most water fowls, ducks are full of fat, but the fat sits mostly between the skin and the muscles – not marbled inside the muscles like pork and beef. Without marbling, the meat cannot self-baste during roasting, and will dry out very easily.
The only way to create marbling is to force feed the duck for days before slaughtering, similar to how foie gras is produced from geese. Each bird is different, of course, so the effect of force feeding varies to a point from duck to duck. So much so, that identifying properly fed ducks used to be a necessary skill for the diners. Some restaurants even let guests pick out dressed ducks before roasting.
There’s no seasoning what-so-ever with Peking roast duck. Forget about brining, marinading, rubs… It’s all about the quality of the meat, cooking technique, and skillful execution. Starting with a defeathered, but ungutted bird, the chef first pumps air into an opening on the neck, separating the skin and muscles apart, which helps producing crispier skins. The slippery “duck balloon” is then gutted without cutting open the carcass. The chef makes a small incision under the wing, removes the heart and lung, and then extracts the digestive organs from the anus. All done without damaging and deflating the “balloon”.
Before roasting, there are many crucial steps that must be completed:
- Prop a stick inside the cavity to prevent shrinking and collapsing.
- Bathe the duck with hot water to precook and tighten the skin.
- Brush the skin with either honey or maltose syrup, which will later caramelize and turn into a deep mahogany color.
- Fill the cavity with boiling water to cook the duck from inside-out. It also provides moisture during roasting, and the steam helps keeping the “duck balloon” inflated.
There are two different ways to roast the duck, depending on the restaurant style. The duck is either hung over an open fire, or roasted in an enclosed oven. Generally, oven-roasted ducks tend to have more succulent meat, whereas wood-fired ducks give you crispier skin. Either way, the duck must come out crispy, juicy, and tender.
Now, The Art of Eating Peking Duck
After the duck is roasted, it’s immediately brought to the table, blistering hot. The chef will then perform a magic show right in front of the guests: turning the duck into dozens and even up to a hundred slices of meat. For the breast, each slice must contain layers of skin, fat, and lean meat. For the back, legs and wings, the skin comes separated from the meat, since skin is usually the most treasured part of the duck, and people like to eat it by itself. Some seasoned diners even dip them in sugar while they are still hot from the oven.
Most restaurants in the US that serve Peking duck will provide a side of Guabao, a flully, leavened bun steamed while folded like a taco. This is actually a Taiwanese tradition. The diner is expected to stuff the bun with duck, plus some scallions and Hoisin sauce for seasoning and garnish. In Beijing, however, the duck is accompanied with steamed wheat tortillas, called “Lotus Leaf Pancakes”, to wrap the meat like Fajitas. The sauce is also different. Though some may prefer the sweetness of the Hoisin sauce, it’s traditionally a fermented wheat paste, which is more salty and savory.
To make a duck roll, you take a pancake, dip a few pieces of meat in the sauce and spread length-wise across the pancake. Garnish with scallions and cucumbers, fold one end of the pancake to prevent falling out, and roll it up like an egg roll.
A Proper Peking Duck Feast at Beijing Brothers
Facing fierce competitions from all the restaurants in DFW offering Peking duck, Beijing Brothers took the path of specialization. They are pretty much dedicated to just the Peking duck, with a few side dishes like noodles and dumplings to fill the gaps. For a group of three to four, the whole-duck combo is the best deal, offering not just the bird, but also fourteen pieces of paper-thin steamed tortillas, eight jumbo-sized steamed dumplings, eight wontons in chili oil, and four small bowls of noodles of your choice.
The chef, who was one of the two brothers, brought us the roast duck on a cart. The large, rectangular cleaver was like a scalpel in his hand, slicing away on the duck with surgical precision. He lined the breast slices around the edge of the plate in a full circle, before breaking down the legs and piling the lean meat in the center. Finally, he covered the leg slices with large pieces of crispy skin. The duck yielded about 40 to 50 slices which is just enough to pair with the pancakes.
The skin was a color of deep mahogany, crunchy and slightly sweet from the basting. The back skin was a bit thicker and less crispy than the rest – I believe it’s better to just eat it alone with some sauce, instead of rolling it up in the pancake. The lean meat wasn’t as succulent as I hoped for, still tender and moist. The fat between meat and skin had mostly rendered away, which some people may find undesirable; but to me, I’m just glad that it wasn’t greasy. Biting into a piece of lean meat felt similar to a dry-brined and smoked chicken breast, in a soft and dense way.
To me, serving roast duck with pancakes is in itself very respectable. The Guabao buns, preferred by all other restaurants in DFW, are easily obtainable in frozen form from Chinese supermarkets, so there’s really no effort needed from the restaurant: just heat it up and serve. Most of the time, you’ll get six to eight buns, just enough for one or two per person. Once they are gone, you are left with just a plateful of meat to your own devices.
On the other hand, the thin pancakes must be hand-made one by one with a rolling pin. It’s certainly a lot of work, but totally worth it. Not only can you stuff more meat and vegetables into each roll, you also get enough pancakes to finish the whole duck, without feeling full right away like the Guabao. I’d take the pancakes over the buns any day.
I couldn’t tell for sure whether the pancakes were cooked to order or reheated. The edge of the pancakes was thin and delicate, curling up after steaming like lotus leaves. They were a bit on the chewy side, but that didn’t bother me once combined with the duck into a mouth-watering roll.
I think the brothers played the best they could with the hand they were dealt with, and I sincerely salute them for it. Even though I was nitpicking the shortcomings of the duck and the pancakes, I have to say that the overall taste of the duck roll was very enjoyable. I had no disappointment what-so-ever. Here’s the proof: later after I left the restaurant, I was already craving for it.
A roast duck meal wouldn’t be complete without the variety of side dishes. I highly recommend the Dan Dan noodle for the gingery, vinegary meat sauce. The noodle wasn’t chewy, but somehow it worked great with the equally tender minced meat. The wontons, with their wrinkled surfaces, held on to the light mixture of chili oil and vinegar, and every bite was a rock-and-roll concert of flavors.
The menu labeled the steamed dumplings as “vegetables” and “three-delicious” without further explanation. From my tasting, the vegetable dumplings seemed to contain a mix of turnips, carrots, napa cabbage, and possibly celery, while the “three delicious” were most likely pork, chicken and shrimp. I believe it’s worth pointing out that 三鲜, literally “three delicious”, could indicate any combinations depending on where in China you are visiting. For example, in my home town, it was pork, shrimp, and sea cucumber. This type of dumplings is the high-end, luxurious kind, and often served as the finale of a lavish dinner.
The Beef noodle resembles the Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup. To my spoiled taste buds, Beijing Brother’s version was rather uninteresting and the after-taste of overcooked tomatoes put me off. I wish they offered another noodle dish instead. A better alternative would be the Zha Jiang Mian native from Beijing.
The Lasting Appeal
If you are getting bored of the Cantonese roast duck, Beijing Brothers will guarantee you a breath of fresh air. Come with an open mind, and try to feel the tradition, history, and craftsmanship encapsulated in the entire meal. It’s truly an one-of-a-kind experience.
A few things to note before heading out: you should make a reservation with the restaurant, at least a day before, which helps them scheduling a freshly roasted duck for you. Also, the strip mall is a bit dated so the AC could barely keep the place cool. Just let them know and they can redirect some cold air towards your location.
P.S. Try asking the chef if they can get you some Tian Mian Jiang sauce for the duck.