Food Fight: Battle Peking Duck

I'll refrain from making any "lame duck" or "peeking duck" jokes here because that would be fairly banal on my part. And it would also dumb down a dish that I've come to crave. Although Peking Duck has been a storied commodity since Imperial times in China, it has only been in my repertoire of foods for a few short weeks. Sure, I knew that the chefs pump air into the duck to separate the skin from the fat; and I knew they hang it to dry before roasting the duck till it's crispy on the outside and tender on the inside -- I have seen Iron Chef America, after all. But I never knew the divine succulence for myself. Until my recent excursions with Dr. Ricky.

What I learned is that Peking Duck is not a single dish, but rather a three-stage experience. First, the skin is served crispy and topped with garlic sauce. The meat is then served with steamed pancakes, scallions, and hoisin sauce. Finally, the remaining fat, meat, and bones are made into a brothy soup. It is a labor intensive meal, one originally created as a banquet for special occasions. Our occasion was that I wanted to learn more about Peking Duck. Which, you know, calls for a celebration. If you're headed out for Peking Duck, keep in mind that it's best to call ahead to give the restaurant notice. Also? It's not a wise choice for date night... Unless it's double date night. A Peking Duck can easily serve 4-6 people, if not more. But the price is right -- about $20-$25 for the whole shebang.

This week Food Fight pits the strictly traditional Peking Cuisine against the Viet-Chinese hybrid A Ly (at a meal where Katharine Shilcutt also tried the kangaroo). The two experiences are wildly distinct... but which will best help you channel your Ming Dynasty roots? Read on, young grasshoppers.

Peking Cuisine

Peking Cuisine is a conventional Chinese restaurant located right on Highway 59. While you might be able to walk in and order the Peking Duck, it's definitely best to call ahead to reserve one, as there are only a small amount procured each day.

The Peking Duck here is strictly traditional. It arrives with little fanfare: narrow strips of meaty duck topped with a blanket of thin, crispy duck skin. We palmed a floury pancake, filled it with strips of duck, scallion, and hoisin sauce, and folded the edges around to seal the package, which looked strangely like a fajita, yet tasted supremely distinct. The pancakes had a chewy heft to them, which went perfectly with the sweet hoisin sauce. The duck inside was tender and moist.

The soup made with the bones and extra meat arrived last, after the duck and side dishes had been cleared. It was a bowl of steaming hot sunshine dotted with bits of bok choy and chunks of tofu, and I could not get enough of it. And just when I thought I couldn't derive anymore satisfaction from this outrageously awesome meal, our bill arrived; five us had feasted till stuffed for a grand total of $44.

A Ly

A Ly is a hybrid restaurant of sorts, offering both Chinese and Vietnamese foods in a nice-size location on Bellaire. While Peking Cuisine represents the strictly traditional side of Peking Duck, A Ly is a more modern version. It's also prepared with a Vietnamese spin, mirroring the owners' own heritage.

We had to request the soup -- it doesn't come standard like at Peking Cuisine -- and it arrived before the actual duck. The brothy soup cleared our palates for the impending feast, and we enjoyed the addition of glass noodles.

And then? The duck. The Peking Duck here was served with thick steamed buns, rather than thin pancakes, and arrived in thick sheets. It was thicker and meatier than the strips at Peking Cuisine. The steamed buns were sturdier; once filled and folded, they became somewhat sandwich-like. The scallions here were mixed with strips of cucumber, an interesting variation, and the hoisin was as sweet as ever. We sampled our way through the distinctive, gamey menu, and our bill here was $103 for seven people.

The Verdict: While both versions are *worthy* choices for the storied meal, I preferred the thinner pancakes and crispier skin at Peking Cuisine. And I still have dreams of that regal soup. But the real takeaway is that Peking Duck is a fabulously fun and festive meal among friends. So grab some buddies and expand your culinary boundaries to Beijing and beyond

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