In Austin, Which Peking Duck Reigns Supreme?
We list some of the mightiest ducks in town
Peking duck is to Chinese cuisine like lechon is to the Philippines or barbacoa is to Mexico – the culmination of a culture spending hundreds of years figuring out what is most delicious.
Prepared through long, laborious processes to exacting standards, the classic banquet dish is emblematic of traditional palace dishes and meant to be shared around a table with friends and family.
First, a fattened white duck – which in America are American Pekin ducks, though Jurgielewicz ducks are considered the best – is slaughtered at 65 days old and plucked. A pump is inserted under the skin and flesh to remove air and maximize crispiness for roasting. Additionally, separating the meat from the skin allows the fat to render properly and tenderize the meat. The innards are carefully extracted through a slit to leave the rest of the skin intact, and the duck is given a quick hot water bath to tighten the skin before being wind-dried and painted with seasonings, including maltose syrup for a rich mahogany color. Finally, the bird is slowly turned in a blazingly hot "hanging oven" and traditionally carved tableside by the chef so that each piece is free of gristle and small bones.
The result is tender, flavorful meat free of gaminess, wrapped in perfectly crispy skin that melts in your mouth like meat candy. Traditional accompaniments are steamed thin pancakes, tianmianjiang (sweet bean sauce), and finely chopped cucumber and scallions, along with a small dish of sugar to dip the skin as an individual treat. Spread sauce on the pancake, place a few pieces of duck in the middle, garnish with the green stuff, roll it up, and eat with your hands.
I went on a pilgrimage through Austin's foremost purveyors of "Peking duck" (see sidebar to understand why I'm using quotation marks here), seeking the best Peking duck the city has to offer, based on the flavor of the meat, the unique crispiness of the skin, and the quality of its accompaniments. At the end of the arduous journey eating my way through fantastic Chinese restaurants, I felt like Emperor Qianlong, who famously ate roast duck eight times within a fortnight. Don't feel too bad for me – although some were better than others, I never had a bad meal.
Din Ho BBQ
Din Ho BBQ has been an Austin Chinese food staple for more than 20 years. The restaurant specializes in Cantonese-style seafood and barbecue, and roast pigs and poultry hang by hooks in the glass display case as you walk in the door, ready for expert carving and enjoyment. Owner Jackie Szeto hails from Hong Kong, which borders the Chinese province of Guangdong, and the "Peking duck" here is prepared in the Cantonese style.
We ordered the Peking duck and a couple of Tsingtao beers served in chilled glasses. Nothing goes as well with Chinese BBQ as cold Tsingtao or Tiger Beer, so the fact that Din Ho offers beer and wine (unlike Bamboo House or First Chinese, which are BYOB) already puts me in a good mood. They get a full point for the chilled glasses.
The Peking duck is served whole and comes with an array of 10 steamed bao buns, finely shredded scallions, and house hoisin sauce. The rack of bones, which still has meat on it, is available for an additional $2. The chef did an adequate job of removing most of the bone and gristle, and arranged the duck with a leg on each side. The skin is crisped with a hot oil bath, but it remains a little chewy, and there's a lingering bit of gaminess. It's still a stellar piece of poultry, and the two of us wolfed down enough for three people.
8557 Research #116, 512/832-8788
1618 Asian Fusion
If you're looking for service, aesthetics, and ambience more like the Chinese upper classes had centuries ago when eating Peking duck, try 1618 Asian Fusion. The restaurant doesn't resemble a Chinese banquet hall in any way, but in terms of setting, they're certainly the bougiest on the list, and there's something to be said about enjoying fantastic cocktails and a beautifully decorated atmosphere while you're chowing down on some duck. Owners Kevin Le and Lynn Tran excel at offering the best of different Asian cuisines (the couple travels extensively through Southeast Asia for culinary inspiration), and the Peking duck is no exception. While it definitely skews more Cantonese in its influence, it's an incredible roast duck overall.
The skin is tight as a drum, exceptionally crispy, and easily peels away from the firm-but-tender meat. The meat is darker, so I'm assuming it was stuffed with Cantonese-style spices. The perfectly carved whole duck feeds two or three and comes with 10 steamed bao buns, tianmianjiang, and chopped scallions. Half of the appeal of Peking duck – and what distinguishes it from Cantonese-style siu aap – is the skin, and unfortunately this is where 1618 falls short; the skin of this duck crackles on the chopsticks and not on the tongue.
1618 E. Riverside, 512/462-9999
Austin's Chinese population was abuzz with excitement when Bamboo House decided to open here, because the original location in Houston received such high acclaim for its Peking duck, which is prepared using traditional methods and exacting standards difficult to find outside of China. When Bamboo House finally opened in October, the duck sold out for the first several weeks and lines were out the door. These days, you can walk in and order a half duck (for one or two people) or whole duck (only available for groups of three and up) most weekday afternoons with no wait, although it can get a bit busy on weekend nights and sell out, so I recommend getting there early to make sure your ducks are in a row.
My friend and I sat down at 4:30pm on a Thursday in a mostly empty restaurant and were served almost immediately upon seating. The Peking duck experience began with a soup made from duck bones with napa cabbage and tofu floating in the clear, fragrant broth, a classic precursor to the main affair, which arrived within minutes of the soup. The perfectly carved half duck was served with freshly steamed pancakes in a bamboo steamer and all the traditional accompaniments, including house-made tianmianjiang and sugar for dipping.
It was worth the hype. The meat had a milder, more nuanced flavor than any of the other ducks and zero gaminess, with a firm-yet-tender texture. The skin was absolutely perfect – the only place on this list to get it right. Bamboo House loses half a point for not having Tsingtao beer or baijiu necessary to counteract the oiliness of the duck, but this is the holy grail of Peking duck in Austin ... for now.
7010 Easy Wind #100, 682/428-7846
First Chinese BBQ
Let me just say: First Chinese BBQ has some of the best Cantonese-style BBQ and seafood in town, so don't let this review put you off their other dishes. Their "Peking duck," while not bad overall, isn't really like Peking duck. In fact, it reminded me a little of Nanjing salted duck, which is a boiled duck dish, but with additional marinade.
The duck is served whole with 10 steamed bao buns, hoisin sauce, and haphazardly chopped scallions, suggesting a lack of care or finesse with the accompaniments. It was obvious they were serving their standard roast duck with a different-colored marinade, and no effort was made to crisp the skin at all. While the marinade was quite flavorful, the skin was very chewy and the meat was the gamiest of all the ducks.
The duck was gristly and hastily chopped up, so I bit into several pieces of bone and chewy fat. This made it difficult to properly roll the pieces into the bun. It's the kind of duck you could make at home, which negates the point of ordering Peking duck at all. If you're going to order duck at First Chinese, try the roast duck noodle soup instead.
10901 N. Lamar, 512/835-8889
Peking Duck vs. Cantonese-Style Roast Duck
"Peking duck" is often used as a catch-all term for any Chinese roast duck, though they may not employ the same cooking methods. Cantonese-style roast duck, or siu aap, while similar, is stuffed with star anise, ginger, peppercorns, green shallots, cassia buds, cloves, vinegar, and salt that gives it a reddish color and sweeter taste, and is usually served with steamed bao buns and hoisin sauce rather than thin pancakes. They're also baked in closed ovens, and require a hot oil bath to crisp the skin – unlike with the open oven method – producing a firmer, less "melt-in-your-mouth" texture. It's delicious in its own way, but for the purposes of this article I'm rating specifically on how Peking duck is traditionally presented.– Clara Wang