By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
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One of the great things about being a gastronaut — one of the great things about living a food-obsessed life — is that you can engage in quests. And while you may not get to slay any dragons while you search out foie gras or Chinese soup dumplings in the wilds of the Denver exurbs, these missions — these half-holy, obsessive and deeply felt hunts for alien riches — do have their moments.
Like a book nerd searching for a rare first edition, like some creepy doll collector desperately pining for a vintage Kestner, an eater hunting for a longed-for hit of head cheese, ortolan or freaky Japanese candy can spend years (and occasionally fortunes) on the pursuit, getting weirder and more strung out on passion the longer he goes. I once drove from New York to Mexico hunting for a good margarita and the perfect fish taco to go with it. I've sat in closed bars behind locked doors in strange neighborhoods, heart pounding, palms sweating, waiting for a pour of Vietnamese snake wine, and stood, in tux and tails, smoking a cigar, pockets stuffed with phony business cards, pretending to be a rich Manhattan wine importer, just for a taste of 200-year-old whiskey being uncorked for a secret gathering of food-industry professionals.
And I'd go farther for great Peking duck. You can find crap Peking duck all over Denver, of course. You can go to Mott Street in Manhattan or Kearny and Grant in San Francisco and hope for the best, looking for the big stone ovens, those perfectly caramel-brown and crackly ducks hanging from butcher's hooks in the window. You can buy a phrase book, grab your passport and jet off to Peking itself (now called Beijing), or to Shanghai, where (I've heard) the ducks are sold on every street corner, at the end of every twisting alley. But you may not find what you crave. The skin will not be crackly enough, the meat will not be chopped just right. The fat will have congealed, the meat turned, the pancakes gone stale.
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And so you keep looking. And it's the looking — the study and the searching against terrible odds — that turns a simple hunger into a fixation that can consume you for years, that can split off into smaller, mini-fixations (finding just the right scallion pancakes even if the duck blows, the ideal hoisin sauce in a bottle, a place that does only the skin perfectly) as you continue to seek the object of your affections in every restaurant that offers it, in every city you visit. Until one day — finally, miraculously — you find yourself in the most unlikely of places, face to face with what you've been searching for.
In a strip-mall Chinese restaurant.
Spice China is about 8,000 miles from Beijing, and yet it was in the dining room at Spice China — drowning in light streaming in through the windows, beneath the pink-stippled walls and oddly charming murals of Chinese village life — that I saw set before me the Peking duck I'd been pursuing, on and off, for more than a decade. Yes, it was a little strange that it came with three legs. And the thin, flat, rice-flour pancakes hadn't been steamed into chewy softness before they were stacked beside the duck. But still, this was it: the grail, or at least a very convincing copy. And I could tell before I'd even taken a single bite.
Here is how you make a proper Peking duck. First, invent a time machine, go back to the mid-nineteenth century, grab yourself a plot of land in one of the booming cities of mainland China, and enlist the help of a bricklayer to build you an oven. Then practice. For about a hundred years. Find a source of Nanjing river mallards and a place where you can raise them, force-feeding them like foie gras geese four times a day.
On the 65th day of a duck's life, slaughter, feather and gut it. Cut a slit in the skin near the neck and, through a long tube, blow air in between the skin and subcutaneous fat to separate them. You're only really concerned with the breasts here, so don't knock yourself out. Toss the loose-skinned duck carcass briefly into boiling water, then hang it to dry for 24 hours, coating the skin with anything from malt-sugar syrup (back in the day) to maltose (a more modern substitute). Now introduce it to the oven. Traditionally, your oven should be fired with pear or peach wood, though any hardwood will do. Light the wood, let it burn out, then hang your duck inside, sealing the door for another 24 hours while the ambient, convective heat and smoke cooks Daffy straight through. Alternately, the cooking can be done in an open, hardwood-fired oven with the duck hanging above the flames. But with this process, you have to get your duck pole down off the wall every few minutes, hook the duck off its rack and dangle it at the edge of the flames for thirty seconds. Repeat this process for hours.