Was the Caesar salad at Chasen's better than the Caesar at Musso and Frank? It's too long ago to remember. Is Valerie's version of crunch cake as good as the one they used to serve at Blum's? Hard to tell. Was C.C. Brown's hot fudge sundae really superior to the one at Wil Wright's, and were both of them better than the ones served now at the Disney Soda Fountain? I'm pretty sure, or at least I was sure when I was 7 — it's been kind of a while.
But veterans of the San Gabriel Valley scene, at least those of us who have been following the ebb and flow of Chinese restaurants for a few years, know exactly where the best Beijing duck was served: the late Quanjude, a branch of the famous restaurant in Tiananmen Square, where you had to walk past portraits of Nixon, Kissinger and Boutros Boutros-Ghali on the way to the dining room, and where the ducks — crisp-skinned, smoky, roasted in special ovens and carved by a surgeon's hands — were so remarkably superior to the Beijing ducks we all grew up eating that the effect was not unlike taking a first bite of pâté de foie gras after a lifetime of Underwood Deviled Ham. (I think I may have been there on the last night of service, an evening in which the chef's riposte to an owner's tirade was to whiz a cleaver past her head.) An evening at Quanjude involved not just Beijing duck, but also hearts and gizzards and webs and wings, a dullish saute of the duck meat with bean sprouts and a soup made with tongues and white fungus.
Once you've had a properly made Beijing duck, it is hard to return to the norm, and each time news spreads of a new Beijing-style restaurant, hordes rush in, only to be disappointed when the place turns out to be a Tianjin cafe trying to pass. There is, of course, Duck House in Monterey Park, a rather elegant bistro that supplements its duck with Taiwanese specialties made from the calorie-free jelly called konjac, and Tasty Duck, where the thick, fatty slabs of bird taste almost deep-fried. Wolfgang Puck's version at WP24 is pretty good, and comes with a splendid view of the city. Some people like the Beijing duck at the Sichuan cafe Hong Yei, although I have never been persuaded.
Which brings us, I guess, to the new Beijing Duck House in a far corner of San Gabriel, a big, airy restaurant devoted to the bird, whose aroma drifts out onto the street. Its garish red-and-yellow sign is visible a mile down the road; the walls inside are dominated by huge photographs of the Great Wall plunging into the sea.
Unless you show up for a weekday lunch, when the tables are crowded with locals eating bargain lunches of fish hot pot or pork balls with glass noodles, everybody in the restaurant is confronting a duck, which you should reserve a half-hour or so in advance, but which you probably can get anyway. (The last time I was in, I got an angry call on my cell from a restaurant owner claiming I hadn't shown up to claim my duck, which puzzled me because I happened to be eating one at the time. It turns out that I had accidentally dialed Duck House by mistake.)
If you are looking to kill time until the duck comes, there is a really good dish of cold, sliced beef in a chile oil sluiced with Sichuan peppercorns, a take on Sichuan fuqi feipan, or for perversity's sake a version of Shanghai-style vegetarian duck constructed from tofu skin. The Shanghai-style preserved vegetables with chewy knots of tofu skin are nice. A stir-fry of asparagus with red dates and crunchy lily bulbs is something you might associate with Hong Kong. The tofu is made in-house, and cool, trembling disks of the bean curd are superb in a sauce made with pureed spinach and herbs. Cumin lamb? Why not. The green onion pie is very thin and very crisp.
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The bulk of the menu seems to be devoted to dishes from coastal Shandong, an area that serves as Beijing's outlet to the sea, which is to say you are never far from an exotic invertebrate preparation — try the sea cucumber garnished with squab eggs. Not the least of these are several dishes made with haichang, a sea worm sometimes translated as "sea intestine." How off-putting does a creature have to look to warrant "sea intestine" as its more palatable alternative? When you see them in Asia, haichang look like pink, uncircumsized penises wiggling around their market tanks — penises that will squirt you from their business end if you approach them the wrong way. Skinned, gutted and boiled, the haichang at Beijing Duck House look like hollow, pinkish tubes and act like vaguely seafood-flavored chewing gum — not bad, actually, whether sauteed with garlic leeks or stuffed into steamed dumplings.
But you're here for the Beijing duck, which you remember at the moment a chef charges out of the kitchen bearing a roasted bird and a cleaver, slicing the breast into crescents of meat and crisp skin, sliding his sharp blade beneath the crisp skin of the rest of the bird and lifting it off in jagged, fatless, meatless shards. If you are not Chinese, a waiter probably will come over to show you how to eat this delicacy, how to smear a paper-thin wheat pancake with a bit of bean paste, sprinkle the pastry with slivers of cucumber and scallion and roll it up with the duck skin inside. The skin is crisp, the sauce sweet, the pancakes never quite gauzy-thin enough. The sharpness of the scallion is the key, cutting through the richness, bringing the whole dish into balance. You could eat a million of these pancakes, but they give you just 10.
I suspect a purist might object to the ducks here, which are clearly roasted with a savory marinade inside the cavity, which prevents the skin from turning a glorious bronze but makes the residual meat, usually a throwaway, delicious. When you are done, the rest of the duck is brought out to you in fleshy chunks. For seven bucks or so extra, you can have your carcass made into a truly wonderful soup. Mmmm — carcass soup.
BEIJING DUCK HOUSE | 6420 Rosemead Blvd., San Gabriel | (626) 286-5508 | Lunch daily, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Sun.-Thurs., 4:30–9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4:30–10 p.m. | MC, V | No alcohol | Lot parking | Takeout | Cold dishes and dumplings, $4.98–$7.98; main courses $6.98–$20.98; Beijing duck, $31.98, $38.98 with soup. Recommended dishes: Beijing duck with soup; haichang dumplings; green leaf tofu.