The concept of a one-specialty restaurant is well-known in the Chinese San Gabriel Valley: Din Tai Fung for steamed dumplings; Little Sheep for Mongolian hot pot; Dai Ho for spicy beef-noodle soup. If you want soy milk, you go to Yung Ho. If you happen to be in the mood for hair noodles flavored with bits of beef intestine, Ay Chung is the only place to go. And if you want a real Beijing duck — you’re out of luck.
Or you were until recently, when the Chinese café Lu Din Gee stepped up to fill the yawning void left in the local restaurant scene when specialist Quanjude closed a couple of years ago, a void that could be filled only with delicious, crispy bits of duck.
Beijing duck, of course, is one of the glories of the Chinese table, fragrant wisps of air-dried, roasted skin, rubbed with aromatics, brittle as spun sugar, folded into thin wheat crepes with a dab of fermented bean sauce and a few shreds of scallion, and eaten as a sort of ethereal taco. (The meat is stir-fried with soft bean sprouts, the parade of innards if you want them, and the white soup made from the bones come in later courses — the whole point of Beijing duck is the skin.)
The first bite of a properly prepared bundle of Beijing duck is one of the great mouthfuls in all the world’s cuisines, simultaneously sweet and salty, crunchy and soft, rich and refreshing. Quanjude, which was a branch of the Beijing restaurant where Nixon and Mao famously ate duck together, roasted its duck over charcoal, giving it an extra, smoky presence and a delicate texture as devoid of fattiness as anything as fatty as duck skin could possibly be. Lu Din Gee is a cheerfully odd place, a sort of sleek Chinese bistro fitted into what used to be a lacquer-happy, celebrity-intensive teahouse (at least if your idea of a celebrity runs to Jackie Chan and Samo Hung) that specialized in the desserts and dainties of the old imperial court.
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Lu Din Gee, a restaurant project of popular local caterer Michelle Fan, is a few degrees off-center in its own way, dominated by an espresso machine and a display of flavored coffees, offering an illustrated menu of exotic soda pop and playing the sort of music you might expect to hear in a hip dentist’s office. There may be a youngish vibe to the place, and you see a lot of students some nights, but Lu Din Gee is a local redoubt of Chanel and Jimmy Choo, of food recast as fashion rather than as the traditional product of centuries — even a dish called Fatty Sliced Pork & Dry Tofu in Hot & Spicy Paste comes across as something refined, a rich, jammy tidbit to enjoy with tea.
There are delicious, crackly scallion pancakes here, and spicy fish balls, and shreds of dried tofu dressed with chile and soy. I rather enjoy a dish of grilled eel arranged on a steamerful of sticky rice seasoned with pork and soy sauce — the eel melts away into nothing at the first touch of your teeth, and the rice breaks up into chewy, flavorful clumps. Cumin beef has the authoritative presence of hot chili fries, slicked with crimson oil: The kitchen is adept at “velveting,” a double-cooking process that tenderizes tough meat enough to stand up to the high heat of stir-frying, so that even unpromising-sounding dishes like XO lamb and beef with garlic are worth ordering here. The menu makes a big deal of konnyaku, the stiff jelly derived from a mountain yam, and there are probably more ways to sample the stuff here than at any other restaurant in town: stir-fried with jellyfish and pork, cooked with fish, tossed with toasted chile oil in a salad, boiled with passion-fruit juice into cross-shaped sweets for dessert. The other house specialty, a dish of fried shrimp buried in a dusty dune of fried coconut, chile and garlic, is somewhat less than the sum of its parts: good enough, perhaps, but without a hint of the tropical lushness you might expect in a dish with these ingredients. Still, there are probably three dozen comparable restaurants within a few blocks of Lu Din Gee, and unless you have a specific yen for konnyaku or eel, a lot of them are more compelling. But sometimes you need a hit of Beijing duck. And while it’s not Quanjude, Lu Din Gee manages to deliver the goods.
Lu Din Gee Restaurant, 1039 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 288-0588. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Bejing duck dinner for two or three, food only, $26.95–$35.95. Call one hour ahead for the duck entrée. Beer and wine. Takeout and catering. Lot parking. MC, V. Recommended dishes: Beijing duck, barbecued eel on steamed sweet rice, spicy konnyaku salad.
Photos by Anne Fishbein