Thursday, May 21, 2009

BEIJING, Li Qun's Motherduckin' Roast Duck

We were invited on a trip to Beijing, China last month. I went over to do a story on the Chinese government's interest in skateboarding. It's a strange story and you'll likely read about it in THE SKATEBOARD MAG soon enough. But the other reason I went was for the food. And if you saw Andrew Zimmern's entire episode dedicated to Beijing, you'll know it's one of the most fucked up culinary destinations on the planet. On our first day, however, we decided to play it "normal" and go for the roast duck. They say you haven't visited if you don't go see the Great Wall and have roast duck. Here's the duck story. OK? OK.

Tania was slightly irked/confused by my insistence on going to this place. I’ll admit, it was kind of a knee jerk reaction/choice, but once I read about Li Qun’s Roast Duck (pronounced LEE CHOON) in our copy of Fodor’s, there was no other place to get Roast Duck in Beijing. “Every other place that says they have the best duck is bullshit,” I said to myself. “Li Qun’s is the best, period.”

This is a quality I’ve seen in not only my father, but in most middle aged men: we settle on something for absolutely no reason and with little evidence, except because someone told us about it or we read about it somewhere, and then we adopt the information as our own and the impression becomes firsthand experience. Nothing could dissuade me. We were going to Li Qun and I wouldn’t hear of anything less. “O-kaaay,” Tania said.

It was good. But in hindsight, I have no idea how good it was because I’ve never had Peking duck before and thus had nothing to compare it to. But I enjoyed it. And, given the language barrier, which is extremely thick—even those Chinese who “speak” English sound like they have a mouth full of marbles and they got their voice running through a distortion pedal—I’m surprised we were able to hire a taxi and get to the restaurant and back as easily as we did. The accomplishment of actually finding the place (the first of many independent outings into the city) was as delicious as the meal. For one thing, they made it out to be in the middle of a ghetto maze. But that, of course, was one of the attractions of this hard to find gem.

Derrr, where's the duck restaurant?

The truth of the matter is it’s one block from a major intersection, and about ten yards off the main street. And there’s a big sign. As well as a bunch of crudely drawn ducks on the wall at the entrance of the alley all marching to the restaurant. The guidebooks made it sound like it was a quest to the top of Everest. I read another account online by a fellow who was duped into paying a guide to take him through the “hutong” (their version of a Brazilian little flavella) because he’d never find it on his own. We not only had no trouble finding it, but there was a man in the alley who seemed to be waiting for us. “Right here,” he beckoned, and ushered us into the restaurant.

The charmingly crappy alley way front door at Li Qun's.

"Hell and fire were sworn to be the least!" The duck oven.

The first thing you see when you walk into the dark and smoky foyer is the wood-burning oven with the ducks hanging inside. I was like a moth drawn to the light and went into the fire room. “No, no, no,” I was told, that was the wrong way, “In here, in here,” he pointed. So we made a left through the meat locker curtains and into a hallway with the dining room off to the side.

The dining room at Li Qun's.

It’s someone’s house converted into a restaurant. A skylight lit a small, cluttered dining room that was dominated by the color red. To our left, a small group of waiters and cooks hovered over a table with a large pile of shredded duck in front of them. They all turned and looked at us, something was said, and they all laughed. “I wish I knew what the joke was when they were laughing at us,” Tania said later. It might have had something to do with the fact that we were quite early for dinner and we were their first customers of the evening. We had had nothing to eat since breakfast. We were starving and I, at least, had hit the wall. Not the Great Wall, just “the wall.”

An older gentleman with an open shirt exposing a dirty wife beater beneath, beckoned us to come in. “Welcome, welcome,” he said. The owner perhaps? A waitress in a traditional red top tagged in and led us into a small room off to the side. The room was yellow, with three tables. A window with bottles of wine separated us from the main dining room. We sat down, and the waitress plopped two menus in front of us, and then she got out her pen and paper. It was time to order. This is something we found very common in China. I’m not sure if they’re being polite and attentive, or you’re just supposed to know what you want already? But they don’t walk away after you’re handed a menu. “Uhhhh…?” We stumbled through the pages of the menu as quick as we could. She saved us the trouble by intervening and, in a manner that displayed her history of dealing with foreign diners in the past, she quickly went over the menu.

We had three choices: traditional roast duck for two, popular roast duck for two, or vegetarian roast duck for two. Not sure what a vegetarian roast duck is, and we hate everything that has the word vegetarian attached to it, so we were left with two options: traditional or popular. “Popular” meant “white people order this.” So that left us with one choice: traditional. We added two beers. The waitress grabbed the menus and was off. We both were sad to see the menus taken so quickly, we wanted to peruse the other pages, but it’s probably a good thing we didn’t because we definitely didn’t need any more.

The beers came first. The label made it appear to be a nice bottle of ginseng tea. It was a normal. Next came the appetizers, and this was the part of the meal that separated the “popular” from the “traditional” meal. In fact, I think it was only one of the appetizers that separated the two orders: duck liver. The livers were sliced sideways and the sections produced looked like flower petals. And that’s how they were arranged on the plate, like a duck liver flower. “Very elegant cat food plating,” I thought.

The appetizers. Roasted duck wing salad is in the center, surrounded by broccoli, some cucumber, egg rolls, and the liver flower.

I didn’t much care for the first bite, but I later attributed that to my tongue’s forced isolation and lack of exercise throughout the day. It looked, and tasted like cat food. But by the fourth bite, I had begun to acquire a taste for the stuff.

“You can acquire a taste for anything, but who wants to?”
—Harry Dean Stanton to Crispin Glover, after he samples the latter’s tomato soup in the movie Twister.

The other three appetizers were pretty much normal: an eggroll cut into slices, a plate of broccoli in sauce, and a shredded duck wing salad. It must have been duck, but it looked like chicken in the egg roll, and it tasted a little gamey. Other than that, it was all really good.

It wasn’t long before they arrived at the table with an entire dead duck on a plate. “This the duck we killed for you,” they seemed to say. “She she!” I said. That’s “thank you” in Chinese. It’s pretty much all I said the whole trip.

After they show you your dead duck, they take it over to this little table and carve it up.

And then it looks like this. Little petals of duck flesh. Mmmm.

They took the duck to a table behind us, carved it up, and returned with a plate of meat. The proper way to eat roast duck—again, I read that this is the “proper” way to eat duck, but I really have no idea—is to take some meat, put it between one of the little pancake things, smear some sauce on it, and add some cucumber and scallion. I must say, it was delicious. The duck was juicy and smoky, and the dark, slightly sweet sauce accented the flavor perfectly. The crisp sharpness of the vegetables complimented the richness of the meat. My only complaint would be I would have seasoned the duck with a touch of salt. Otherwise, it was the best duck I’ve ever had. Which, admittedly, isn’t saying much.

"Just a one more bite, it is a waffer theen!"

As we ate, the restaurant began to fill up. The couple next to us were very chatty with the staff. At one point, the man got into a small argument with a waiter over their duck’s carcass. We later learned they were haggling over the price of deep frying it. “It’s the best part,” the man said to me. It looked like it had been crucified when it came back.

We learned they were Chinese, but living in Vancouver. They were ultimately very disappointed in Li Qun’s roasted duck. For one, he explained that he preferred the Americanized version of Peking duck—he regretted admitting it because of his Chinese heritage, but he insisted the duck you get in America and in Canada is better. But most of all, they were upset by the prices. Apparently Li Qun’s had been much cheaper in the past, but they’ve recently raised their prices. “Because—well, because of you guys,” he said.

I was done, but I needed to use the bathroom. This simple task became a chore throughout the trip and I dreaded asking where it was. I never found the right word. “Bathroom? Restroom? Toilet?” None of these words worked and I refused to point at my dick and pantomime taking a piss. I’m classy like that. Someone would always eventually figure out what I needed, but we never learned the word for toilet. Might have been more useful than the other two words I did learned. But that’s another post.

You don't have to tell me twice, "No shit? No problem!"

After visiting the toilet at Li Qun, I like to imagine the English word they use for “toilet” is much cruder. “Shit hole?” “Shit place?” “Piss fuck shit?” "Hell Place for Make the Poops?" I don’t know, but I loved the “NO SHIT” signs. You can’t see it in the photo, but it’s all over the tiny bathroom. It’s written no less than a half dozen times. I’m guessing the first couple were written kind of high up and then the artist realized, “Oh, children will be using the bathroom and so I better put the warning down at their height. ‘NO SHIT!’ you little shits.”

Peeing was allowed. And that's my Chinese beer. Delicious.

After we relieved ourselves, we got a cab back to our hotel and died. We had gone from starving to stuffed and we were still being ravaged by the jet lag. We passed out early.

After we were done eating, we had a smoke outside. When we were done, we threw our butts into the "ashtary."

During the night, I was once again able to find an ingenious way to blame my farts on something other than my own butt. It’s getting more and more difficult these days. Tania is on to me. I don’t think she believes me when I point at Beckett or Gary anymore. And when they’re not around, there are very few excuses I can muster. But over there in China, providence shined upon me.

PFFFFT! I farted. “Oh my,” I said, waving the sheets about to let the stink out, “somebody must have stepped on a duck!” Tania smacked me. But not long after, I farted again. PFFFFT! “Wow, it really sounds AND SMELLS like there’s a duck in this bed!” Smack! And then another, PFFFFT! “Oh it sounds like someone is lighting off FIRE QUACKERS outside! Maybe it’s Chinese New Year?”


gbrl said...

dude, you did not use the ace in the (booty)hole. was that a duck choking on a piece of toast?

RyGar said...

I made a low budget food post today, I'm calling it "Food on Stoned." I mean, my production people came up with the idea a long time ago, and they saw your blog, and it was all I could do to stop them from filing a suit about 'intellectual property'. Check it out if you get a chance.

CHSkateboarding said...