Duck Hunt

By Dave Carnie. Photograph by Horacio Salinas

In pursuit of perfection: a hard-held conviction and narrow-minded obsessiveness delivers the goods

When one visits Beijing, they say there are two things one must do: see the Great Wall, and eat Peking Duck. In regards to the latter, our Beijing guidebook recommended a number of fine establishments to sample authentic duck, but, for whatever reason, one place eclipsed all others in my mind: Li Qun’s Roast Duck. I don’t know why—I’d never had real Peking duck before, but I determined that Li Qun made the best roast duck in the world. It’s a peculiar habit, something my father is guilty of as well. He’ll hear about something from somebody, or read about a place in a magazine, and through some sort of bizarre psycho-mathematical computation, declare that place “THE BEST.” In fact, his conviction is so strong that he believes it was wrought from first hand experience. I observed this irrational process occurring in my own head while trying to decide where to sample local Duck. It was as if I were watching someone else, but I decided to go with it. “We are going to Li Qun for roast duck,” I told my wife. “They make the best. End of story.”

She looked at me funny, and agreed. Surely one of the details about Li Qun that made it more attractive than any of the other places was the fact that it was located in the middle of a hutong and extremely difficult to find. “We ain’t eating no tourist shit!” I proclaimed. The added possibility of adventure made it all the more exciting. And thus better. We’d have to navigate a dark and dangerous labyrinth of a hutong to feast on the flesh of duck. What impressive stories we’ll tell when we return home!

For the benefits of friends back home, we weren’t able to assume the role of “Asshole World Traveler” because there was no adventure. Li Qun is indeed in a narrow alley in a hutong, but it’s only about 100 yards from the wall that separates the slums from the “real world.” And there are signs everywhere—crude paintings of ducks on the walls pointing in the direction of the restaurant. There was even a kind little man sitting out front beckoning for us to come inside. Real dangerous.

It was, however, an interesting experience. Li Qun’s restaurant is an old home converted into a restaurant. Off the side of the dark foyer is a closet that’s been converted into an oven where a half dozen duck balloons hung (a defining characteristic of Peking Duck is that air is pumped under the skin to separate it from the meat) slowly roasting in their own juices. I walked towards it like a moth to light. “No, no, no!,” they yelled at me. I was going the wrong way. “The dining room is over here, stupid,” they seemed to say.

Having no idea what we were doing, we let them order for us, and after a couple of plates of duck livers, duck wing salad, and broccoli, the wait staff appeared with a beautifully roasted duck on a plate.
I don’t generally waste my “Ooooohs!,” on precious desserts in restaurants, I save them for when I really mean them, and that roast duck at Li Qun was one of those times. “Ooooooh!”

Taking the duck to the table behind us, it was carved, and returned with a plate of meat and skin, some pancakes, and condiments. The proper way to eat roast duck (again, I read this was the “proper” way) is to take some meat, put it on one of the little pancakes, smear some bean sauce on it, add some cucumber and scallion, and roll it up. It was delicious. The duck was juicy and smoky, and the dark, slightly sweet sauce accented the flavor perfectly. The crisp vegetables complimented the richness of the meat, and the fatty, crunchy skin was simply the best part of the whole meal. “Ooooooh!”

I must say, it really was the best roast duck we had. But that might also be because it was the only roast duck we had in Beijing. Or anywhere else for that matter. But I’m still certain that it was the best roast duck in the world. End of story.