Depending on whom you ask, there is no dish in China more revered and esteemed than Peking duck. The combination of tender slices of breast, shatteringly crisp glazed skin and those addictive little pancakes has been perfected by chefs in one form or another since the Yuan Dynasty.
Of course it’s a bit simplistic to reduce a nation of more than 1 billion people and countless regional subcultures to a single dish, but suffice it to say the Peking, or Beijing, roast duck has a special place in Chinese culinary lore — and in the windows of those classic Chinatown barbecue shops. You don’t get listed at No. 1 on Huffington Post’s "10 Foods Around the World to Try Before You Die" for nothing.
Which makes it all the more dispiriting that neither Los Angeles nor the San Gabriel Valley is home to many roast duck specialists, the kind that serve duck prepared in the same meticulous and labor-intensive way that's explained in Chinese tourism pamphlets.
But good news: At the cheerfully named Happy Duck House in Rowland Heights, a slightly ritzy restaurant that recently sprung up in a shopping plaza across from a congee joint, there's a duck master who would make the Beijing tourism board smile.
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SHOW ME HOW
The first thing to note is that you'll need to order your duck one hour in advance. When you arrive, your table will be graced with a dish of salty-sweet bean sauce, shredded scallion, little matchsticks of cucumber and a plastic tortilla warmer filled with house-made flour pancakes as thin as parchment paper. Then the duck arrives, shiny and pristine — a mound of neatly sliced duck breast surrounded by little squares of skin that radiant outward like rays on a cartoon sun. You take a bit of breast and skin, some sharply pungent scallion and a dab of sauce and roll it loosely in the thin pancake to make a sort of proto-taco. If you ask, the staff will bring you a dish of sugar in which to dip the skin, which tastes like someone constructed kettlecorn out of chicharrones.
It’s worth noting that there are other oddly intriguing delicacies at Happy Duck House— braised sea cucumber with brown sauce, steamed jellyfish head with XO sauce and something called “fish roll with Osmanthus” — but just about every table seems to be sharing at least one platter of duck. That’s probably a good sign, along with the fact that the restaurant retains the services of a master chef with 26 years of duck-roasting experience under his belt, according to the menu.
The traditional signs of high-level duck roasting are all here: The nearly transparent skin is burnished with a golden-brown layer of maltose and rendered of its fat until only a microscopic layer remains. The meat is tender and moist and scantily seasoned so it tastes mostly of duck. An order of duck and accoutrements costs $39, and you can combo it with bean sprouts, stir-fried with bits of duck meat and a pot of soup made from simmered duck bones if that's your thing. Do three duck dishes in one sitting sound like overkill? Not at Happy Duck House.
Happy Duck House, 18210 E. Gale Ave., Rowland Heights; (626) 581-4747.