Unless I am in San Diego or Mexico, rarely do I have a craving for tacos. I admit that I prefer flour tortillas to corn, and that if I had my druthers I would just choose rice, easily my favorite food next to the incredible edible egg. The solution seems obvious, find a burrito, which is often oversized but does the job well. Except in this mishmash of rice and beans, meat and salad, a little elegance is lost, the spirit of the taco tarnished. The compromise lies in a familiar place, the ingredients, Asian flared.
The Peking Duck House (located in Chinatown and 53 St. Eastside) is a Chinese restaurant pretending to sell Chinese food, when in actuality they just make great Peking Duck. On several occasions I have tried to order other dishes. Most of them were adequate and forgettable. But take a cue from the house’s monochromatic design. Just go for the duck. This requires a bit of restraint, as some dishes on the menu may tempt you aided by the combos the restaurant offers groups of four or more. Better to order two whole ducks instead.
The duck is brought out whole, crisped to sheer perfection. The carver slices through the flesh at odd angles, yielding thin slices of duck. After the carving, a waiter shows you the ropes, by taking a flour tortilla from the steamer, spreading some plum sauce, placing two pieces of duck on top, and finally adding two sticks of fresh scallion and cucumber. The waiter then rolls it into a taco and leaves you to your work. The first bite is heavenly; the taco is consumed in nanoseconds. You scurry to create another taco, part of the fun, as you look around incredulously for a witness to the total carnage.
I learned a trick from Dr. L. years ago when the Harvard jujitsu club used to come into the city for competitions. The pre-competition ritual was to go to Chinatown the night before, often The Peking Duck House. At one point the carver will stop slicing, and if you’re not looking, will take the carcass back to the kitchen to use as stock. Ask for the duck body to be chopped up and brought to the table. The waiter will nod and smile, knowing you are no novice, and that the bones are laden with duck meat, juicy and flavorful. The legs stand in as the best fried chicken China has to offer, the rib bones like Peking spare ribs.
Down to my last tortillas, I scrape remnants off the bones to make one last taco. I realize that I’m stuffed, and enjoy the sliced oranges and fortune cookies de rigueur. If only they could do the same with a goose…ah, goose tacos, now that’s an idea.