Duck, duck, squid
Chinese Duck House isn’t much to look at. Sandwiched between a pair of car audio shops, you’ve probably seen the sign while driving by on South Virginia Street. It’s a small building with seating for perhaps 30 diners, most of its business likely conducted via take-out orders. In other words, it’s like a lot of other non-chain, quick service Chinese restaurants, though it’s been around a lot longer than most. But looks can be deceiving, and this humble kitchen is serving food that is both satisfying and a great deal.
The variety and affordability of dinner specials ($7.25) beckoned to us. All of them include one entree served with a cup of soup, a tempura-fried shrimp, egg roll, crab rangoon, and a choice of steamed or fried rice. For an extra buck, house chow mein can be substituted for the rice, which my wife took advantage of and really enjoyed. The noodles weren’t starchy or greasy, the ingredients tasted fresh, and the seasoning wasn’t overdone. The best thing about her lemon chicken entree was the fact she shared it with me. The sauce was tart, not too sweet, and appeared to be house-made. (She found a lemon pip in the mix.) The fried batter on the chicken was deliciously crispy and the meat was tender.
My plate of roast duck with fried rice ($8.50) wasn’t too shabby. The duck itself was moist and aromatic with Chinese five-spice and wonderfully crispy skin, although just a tad salty. The rice was a little disappointing—bland rice with a smidgen of fried egg. Yet, the plainness of the rice actually complemented the bold flavors from the duck.
Both soups were served piping hot and were decent examples of egg flower and hot and sour. As for the other appetizers, the crab rangoon was a little overcooked, the tempura shrimp a tad undercooked, and the egg roll filling appeared to be mostly cabbage. All were fine, just nothing to rave about.
Similarly, a dim sum combo was a mix of hits and misses ($10.95). Three different takes on shumai—meat dumplings—included pork, beef and shrimp, with the pork winning out on flavor. The seasoning and texture of the pork and beef were very similar, but the shrimp suffered from an overdose of toasted sesame oil. A little of that stuff goes a long way. Too much and you really clobber the delicate flavors of shellfish.
Some form of bao—steamed bun—exists in nearly every East Asian culture, but the Cantonese cha siu bao—BBQ pork bun—is the one most often seen on Chinese-American dim sum menus. The meat was tasty enough, but there wasn’t quite enough sauce to counter the dry bun. A dash of soy sauce improved the experience.
Definitely an acquired taste, lo mai gai—glutinous sticky rice with chicken and mushroom wrapped in lotus leaves—was pretty good. Some low-cost versions of this will substitute banana or grape leaves, but the unmistakable tea-like fragrance of lotus permeated the rice and balanced the strong earthiness of the fungus.
Speaking of acquired tastes, an order of sweet and spicy chicken feet ($4.25, five pieces) lent a sense of adventure to the meal. If you’ve eaten chicken with rubbery skin, you’ve pretty much had this, with the exception of the occasional toe breaking off in your mouth while you nibble away. Best of all was a plate of pot stickers ($5.95, six pieces) that were easily among the biggest, meatiest and crispiest I’ve had.
Finally, a plate of squid mantle ($9.95) with black pepper and salt, sliced jalapeño and fresh herbs was truly awesome. Bite-sized pieces featuring the same crispy coating that shined on the lemon chicken were paired with a yummy sauce and plenty of veggies. Holy cephalopod, that was some good squid.