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Peking Order

Golden Duck may look a little too much like the Mexican restaurant it once was, but what a deal on duck

After you compose your duck on the hoisin-covered pancake, you top it off with cucumber chunks and scallion shavings and roll the whole thing into a taco. It's a heady mix of strong and delicate flavors and textures, made even more incredible by the realization that these ingredients have been combined this way for centuries.

The earliest known mention of this kind of duck preparation is in a catalog of imperial dishes of the Yuan dynasty written in 1330. It wasn't until the early 15th century, when the Ming dynasty moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, that the duck became associated with Peking. Over the centuries, the techniques for preparing Peking duck have taken on the weight of culinary ritual.

"The cooking process is a long and involved one," reads an article on Chinanow.com, "from raising force-fed ducks on the outskirts of Beijing, braising the dead birds with a sweet, malt sugar blend and finally hanging the ducks to roast in specially constructed ovens."

Chef Liu once worked at the most famous Peking duck restaurant in the world. Now he's carving the bird out on Bellaire.
Troy Fields
Chef Liu once worked at the most famous Peking duck restaurant in the world. Now he's carving the bird out on Bellaire.

Details

281-530-0084. Hours: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Whole duck with soup: $22
Peking duck dinner for two: $28
Peking duck dinner for four: $52
Peking duck dinner for six: $78

11768 Bellaire Boulevard

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But what really ignites the imagination is the inflation thing. To make Peking duck, an air hose is inserted into the carcass and the unbroken skin is inflated so that it pulls away from the meat. This allows the skin to achieve a crispier texture. Legend has it that bicycle pumps are often used for this purpose in China. The owner of Golden Duck restaurant tells me they use an air compressor here. Maybe it's the mental picture of an inflated duck that causes me to think of football. Didn't the Longhorns lose their bowl game to some inflated ducks from Oregon a couple of years ago?

The other intriguing aspect of Peking duck cookery is the barbecue oven. In Beijing, the ducks are roasted in front of fruitwood fires. The ovens, fueled with wood from apple, pear and date trees, give the roasting ducks a wonderful barbecued flavor. Unfortunately, at Golden Duck restaurant they use a gas oven. And, sad to say, Beijing may soon follow suit. There are more than 1,000 Peking duck restaurants in that city, and some officials contend that the fruitwood fires are causing pollution problems.

With the 2008 Olympics approaching, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau has begun compelling Peking duck restaurants to comply with air-quality regulations. Quanjude, the restaurant where chef Liu once worked, is now experimenting with the same sort of computer-controlled electric ovens that are ruining Texas barbecue.

"Against a backdrop of skies choked with pollution from factories and coal-fed boilers, closing down the city's duck ovens seems an overreaction to some," reported the Sydney Morning Herald in July. "The city officials are stupid donkeys," one anonymous roast-duck lover told the paper.

There is a lesson for Houston here. What if the most polluted city in America really did host the Olympics? Would city officials ask us to sacrifice our wood-fired barbecue pits? (One more reason to be thankful that we don't have a chance.)

I wish we had a Chinese restaurant in Houston that was doing the fruitwood barbecue thing. But until we do, Golden Duck is hard to beat. It's not fancy enough for your grandfather's 80th birthday party or your daughter's wedding reception, but it's a good place for a duck dinner. And if you ask me, it's perfectly suited for certain minor celebrations -- like a Texans victory, for instance.

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