I'm sensing a pattern," said Katie as we started in on our fourth plate of roasted duck. "The dirtier the restaurant, the better the food."
Several hours earlier we had set off on an afternoon's search for the best barbecued meat in Oakland's Chinatown, sampling food from any place we encountered with lacquered ducks and long strips of red meat in the window. I took along John, my old chef and one of the best cooks I know, and his wife Katie, another former pro. Since all four places we visited allowed some form of sit-down dining, we tried a few side dishes along the way. All barbecue plates ranged from $4.50 to $6.50.
Our first stop was Yung Kee. Located on the corner of Webster and 9th, the two-story Yung Kee looks deceptively small from the entrance. The tiny first-floor room is almost entirely taken up by a large counter with chopping blocks, with a few tables and a soda fridge behind.
Besides barbecued meats, Yung Kee serves inexpensive, down-home Cantonese food: congee, or rice porridge; noodle soups and stir-fried noodles; and simple rice plates with stir-fried meats and vegetables. While the takeout-butcher area was spotless, many years of wear had darkened the linoleum floor and the furniture in the restaurant. Every table was occupied by Cantonese-speaking workers on lunch break and older adults pausing in their rounds for a quick bite.
We ordered a mixed plate of barbecued pork and duck and another appetizer plate of soy roasted chicken. Of the four roast shops we were to visit, Yung Kee's technique was the most refined. The soy chicken was incredibly moist, the skin brushed with a lightly sweet soy glaze. The barbecued pork, sliced into thin rectangles, was lean but not tough. All of the fat had been rendered out of the barbecued duck, leaving tender meat and a ruby-hued, paper-thin skin. (The Chinese have invented several elaborate methods of achieving this. It may involve deep-frying the bird for a few minutes, or pricking the skin with tines and dipping the duck into boiling water to render out the fat. Or, in the case of Peking Duck, the cooks inflate the skin so it separates from the meat, and then they blanch, dry, and roast the duck while inflated.)
But none of the marinades permeated the meat to the bone. It was subtle barbecue -- and, unless I'm not accounting for cultural differences, no one eats barbecue for delicate flavors. We enjoyed our "side dishes" -- a fresh, flavorful stir-fry of chicken with green beans over rice, and a gut-warming bowl of congee perked up with slivers of ginger and scallion, meaty shredded duck, and chunks of salty, gray preserved egg.
Stop number two was Dragon Terrace, one block down on Webster, a restaurant with an attached takeout barbecue. We liked the airy, clean room with high ceilings, fish tanks, and tasteful formica tables. All the staff greeted us with smiles as we came in. Lunch includes a large selection of $4.25 rice plates, handwritten on an attractive menu. They include many of the barbecue dishes over rice, as well as a host of traditional sautéed entrées, variations on congee and noodle dishes.
Maybe it was because we hit the restaurant during a dead spot in the afternoon, but we had some of the nicest, most attentive service I've ever had in Chinatown. Or perhaps we just amused our servers, because John and I decided to order the smooth-cooked pork skin and blood despite their protests. Soft, slightly fatty strips of skin were braised until meltingly soft in a dark soy-based sauce along with cubes of congealed blood, gelatinous and slightly sweet. We both liked it, surprising ourselves. Katie preferred the thick folds of steamed rice noodle wrapped around yellow chives and mushrooms.
The barbecue, however, didn't capture our fancy. The skin on the barbecued duck was largely fat-free but blackened and the meat tough underneath. I enjoyed the fatty, sweet barbecue pork better.
We then hit Gold Medal Restaurant, an equally spacious but more bare-bones butcher and Cantonese restaurant around the corner on 8th. We were drawn in by the ruddy, plump lacquered ducks in the window, their juices dripping into rows of metal pans filled with other delights -- quails, chicken necks, beef organ stew (called "haslet"), pigs' ears, and crullers.
Slowing down, we added a plate of pan-fried chow mein with shrimp and vegetables to our meat order. We loved the noodles, which were chewy and oily, with a fine wok char. But just as I was about to try the shrimp, John spit his into his napkin. "Ugh. Way too old." Katie agreed, shivering over the prawn she had just swallowed. We ate around the rest of the shellfish, leaving a big pile on the plate.
Gold Medal's duck was nothing to write home about: It had a thick layer of fat and a pleasant taste, but the marinade didn't perfume the whole bird. Flavor (and salt) permeated the soy chicken to the bone, unfortunately drying out the meat in the process. I liked the pork best -- sure, it was a bit fattier than at the other restaurants, but the fat kept the meat moist.
Feeling slightly queasy at this point, we headed across the street to Sun Hing Meat Market. We found a bounty of meat products on the counter: chains of riblets, two-foot-long curls of crackling, and long strips of cured, dried, barbecued pork belly. "Do you make that sausage yourself?" I asked the counter woman, who nodded. She turned out to be the owner, the kind of competent cook who can easily manage a dozen customers, four or five pots, and a kitchen disaster with no more than a quiet snort.
No one would call Sun Hing pristine. Its stainless-steel walls and gray tile floor are free of ornament, except for a couple of red-light shrines near the kitchen. We sat down at one of the four tables in the back and picked our chopsticks and forks from a square Tupperware container.
"You're just in time," the owner said. "We just pulled a few ducks from the oven." We ordered a half, along with some roast pork and barbecued chicken wings. Turns out ducks come out of the oven every two hours, as do racks of barbecued pork strips.
Everything arrived steaming and fragrant. We quickly dismissed the overcooked chicken wings. The pork was crispy on the ends and tougher than some of the other batches, but it had the boldest flavor, complimented by a bit of char around the edges. And the duck won the prize. Though it had slightly more fat than Yung Kee's, the sauce didn't stop at the skin. The duck's juices had pooled on the plate below, and we kept dipping the meat in that liquor -- concentrated duck stock with a clear hint of cinnamon. Our host also brought over rice bowls and small dishes of a sweet-salty soy dipping sauce. I groaned involuntarily.
We quickly packed up what we could and stumbled back down Webster to the car, where we fell into a meat-inspired reverie. All I could think of was making my way back to my couch. Did we find the holy grail of barbecued meats? Nah, it's still out there. But I feel like we made good progress. Once I down a week's worth of leafy green vegetables, you can be sure I'll be back on the hunt.
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