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.
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.
In Louisville, Colorado.
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.
When your duck is done cooking, the fun starts. The skin should be removed (carefully) using a very sharp knife, stretched across the cutting board and sliced into thin, crispy strips, sometimes juiced with a sugar/garlic sauce. Then the breasts — damp with melted duck fat, as tender as a lobe of foie — must be removed whole and sliced, ideally with the shape of the breast preserved. The legs are chopped clean from the body and placed bone-in on the tray alongside sauce, pancakes, the obligatory vegetables and the deconstructed duck: skin on top, breast below. At the very least, it is a two- or three-day process to get a Peking duck just right. Most modern Chinese restaurants knock 'em out in about an hour, pan-roasting the bird and then serving it chopped up like hash.
But not at Spice China. Chef Jack Mok takes two days to prepare his ducks. And while I don't think he has a time machine in the back, an original Chinese brick oven or a direct line to a Nanjing duck supplier, only the most freaky, annoying purist would ever notice. He serves his three-legged ducks the right way: a full breast, expertly deboned and sliced with a flashy double-cut that makes for about a hundred bite-sized (or pancake-sized) pieces, topped with shingled strips of crisp, sweet, smoky duck skin the color of caramel candy. And in a sop to completely piggish duck junkies like me, he also tops the breast with a flap of fatty skin that's perfect for chewing after it's dipped in the cup of super-sweet and nutty, savory, smoky, chocolate-brown hoisin sauce.
There are also the traditional scallions and batonnet-cut sticks of cucumber for flavor and texture contrast, but as I do with those Buffalo wing celery sticks, I ignored them completely — instead crunching strips of sweetened duck skin like potato chips made of flesh, folding handfuls of duck meat inside thin pancakes slathered in sauce, grinning like an idiot. Before I was done, I'd consumed the equivalent of half a duck, plus an extra leg, washing it down with cold Tsingtao beer and shots of jasmine tea — devouring the object of my affections, my fanatical searching, before the meat had even grown cold.
Not that it mattered much to me, but Spice China does more than just Peking duck. In fact, Peking duck barely rises to the level of a house specialty at this huge, multi-purpose treasure chest of kooky Asiana, being listed dead last on a page that offers specials of Hunanese chicken and scallions with black pepper, peasant hot pot with tofu, bok choy and Chinese mushrooms, and (amazingly) a super-traditional five-spice Chinese pork that arrives at the table like something out of a cartoon: an entire pork shank — an entire ham — served bone-in, skin-on, slow-roasted and rubbed-down with Chinese five-spice powder until it has achieved the texture of fine barbecue and a flavor that's like eating the steam rising over a Shanghai spice market. And that's just one page of this remarkable menu — one of eighteen.
At Spice China, Mok and his crew have essentially created two menus: one full of sesame beef and a really delicious orange-peel chicken, great handmade pork dumplings, wonton soup and mu shu everything, then a secondary menu that subtly pushes the more authentic cuisine of China and Shanghai on the unsuspecting or the brave. Here, the kitchen offers chilled plates of marinated jellyfish; beef tripe marinated in oil, garlic and onions that's served as a cold app; chicken marinated in wine; and duck packed in salt. Sometimes the staff (friendly, if slightly inept — like an entire crew imported from the closest Applebee's and suddenly made to sell Chinese radish soup and shrimp poppers) will say that the kitchen is out of these specialties. Sometimes, inexplicably, the kitchen just won't prepare them. But be persistent. Patience pays off.
And in the meantime, there's always the bourbon steak — a strange Chinese-American dish that has followed a process of reverse-assimilation, having first been popularized in China as a knockoff of an American dish, then moving back across the ocean to be served here as a Chinese classic. There are whole fish (striped bass, steamed or fried) and eel spiced with white pepper; delicious Shanghai-style shrimp, cooked in the shell and tossed with a creamy ginger sauce; and one of my new comfort-food addictions: sliced tofu, sliced prosciutto and gnarled bits of poached chicken tossed together, stir-fried and served in a huge, shallow bowl with a delicate ginger, lemon, clove and cilantro sauce.
Someday, when I leave Denver and go gallivanting over the horizon to come-what-may, I have no doubt that this will be among the dishes that I crave, that I search for, that becomes a new fixation as I haunt the strip malls and steamy alleys of wherever I end up, chasing after a Shanghainese flavor, dimly remembered, that I had once in a dining room in Louisville, Colorado.
The same place where I finally found my ideal Peking duck.
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