Peking Duck (also more correctly known as Beijing Duck) is one of those sublime foods that’s full of contrasts. It’s always good, but rarely perfect. Seemingly common, proper versions are hard to find. And it’s poorly understood and equally poorly distinguished from it’s ducky cousins. I’ve loved it for nearly half a century, enjoyed it in America and China, and recently made an exhaustive study of the offerings in the greater Los Angeles area. Myself and my good friend and infamous fellow-glutton Jeffrey (a.k.a. @xtremefoodies_) co-organized DuQuest, the search for the best in LA. But before we get to the rankings (click here to skip to them) we need to discuss the basics.
What is Peking Duck?
Fundamentally, Peking Duck is a kind of Chinese roast duck. But as far as I can tell there are at least 4 broad categories of roast duck COMMONLY available in LA’s vast bounty of Chinese restaurants (and a few fusion places). They are:
“Real” Peking Duck
For the purposes of this article, I’m focusing on this: A dish from Beijing (Peking) that has been prepared since the Imperial era. The meat is characterized by its thin, crispy skin, with authentic versions of the dish serving mostly the skin and breast/thigh meat, sliced in front of the diners by the cook. Ducks bred especially for the dish are slaughtered after 65 days and seasoned before being roasted in a closed or hung oven. The meat is often eaten with spring onion, cucumber and sweet bean sauce with pancakes rolled around the fillings.
There are two major sub-variants (cutting styles) we will discuss later but for the purpose of distinguishing “real” Peking duck from other types of duck the main marker is spring pancakes. When served with pancakes it’s “real” and without them it’s usually one of the following:
“Pseudo” Peking Duck
Because Peking Duck is a popular premium dish most restaurants in LA’s amazing Cantonese scene offer it on the menu. However, the vast majority of these, nay, perhaps all, offer what I am calling “Pseudo” Peking Duck. This dish, somewhat beyond the already bloated scope of this article, is a variant of Cantonese Roast Duck, typically cooked in the Cantonese BBQ manner and served with steamed buns, hoisin, cucumbers, and spring onions. It’s a close cousin, and often delicious, but the duck itself is prepared differently, cut differently, and served differently. The buns do not offer the sublime minimalist carbohydrate balance of the pancake. The hoisin is usually sweeter, the duck is generally plated with shrimp chips, and most importantly the skin is never quite so crispy. Pseudo Duck can be delicious, but it’s just not the same thing.
Cantonese Roast Duck
This delicious dish is offered at nearly every Cantonese, dim sum, and Chinese BBQ joint in the city. It’s great, but it’s not Peking Duck. This duck is usually rough chopped with a cleaver (Chinese knife) and soaking in jus. It’s very moist and at it’s best has a very satisfying fatty skin. If it has any condiment it’s just some sweet (orange) plum-based sauce.
Sichuan (or other) Tea Smoked Duck or Nanjing Cured Duck
I’m not sure if smoking counts as roasting, but many central Chinese restaurants, particularly from Sichuan, Hunan or Yunnan will offer a tea-smoked duck. As you can tell, I like duck, so I also find this a fabulous dish. The skin is not as crispy and the whole thing is dry with a smoked pastrami-like quality.
Nanjing Duck is salt cured and also dry, often cold, and has a lovely flavor. It’s not crispy at all.
Peking Duck in Beijing
I’ve been to Beijing several times but on my most recent visit in 2018 I enjoyed several high end Peking Ducks, most notably at Dadong and Country Kitchen. On previous trips I also ate at a different Dadong, Made in China, and some old school spots. I’ve had high end duck at various places in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and other various other Chinese cities.
Proper Beijing duck in Beijing is never quite replicated here in the states, although we have a few that come close. Over there, the duck is always dry-aged, seasoned, inflated with some kind of compressed or pumped air, often filled with a special broth, then slow roasted for 1-1.5 hours in a wood-fire oven. Here in LA they always use gas ovens. Wood-fire is just too complicated or expensive, probably because of annoying regulations. In China, a duck pit master tends the ducks, moving them around to cook them evenly. After roasting, some special bits of the belly skin are served by themselves with sugar. This is enjoyed as a crunchy snack with a sweet/salty/fatty contrast. The legs and wings are removed, and the breast meat is sliced into little ovals that contain both juicy meat and crispy/fatty skin. The meat skin pieces are combined with hoisin, cucumber, and spring onion inside a spring pancake and enjoyed rolled up. Remaining meat is often (optionally) stir-fried and the carcass is made into duck soup. Realistically, they don’t make YOUR particular duck into duck soup. Previous carcasses, probably from previous days are cooked into big batches of the soup and served on demand.
Peking Duck consists of several different components, each of which is worthy of separate evaluation:
The skin should ideally be super crispy/crunchy with just a bit of (mostly rendered) fat. It’s traditionally served by itself and often on parts of the meat. The solo skin can be eaten plain, with a bit of sugar, or dipped lightly in hoisin. It can also be placed inside the pancake roll (which I’ll call a “bing” as explained below).
The “meat” of a peking duck consists of three main sub-parts. The most important is the breast, which is served typically in one of two styles in LA (see below) with or without skin. Then there is thigh meat, and at many places the legs and occasionally the wings. The legs (and wings) are eaten mostly by themselves but the breast and thigh bits are generally designed to go inside the rolled pancake (“bing”). Ideally the meat should be juicy and delicious with a distinct duck taste but not an overwhelming gamey or barnyard quality.
A proper Peking Duck comes with ultra-thin delicate warm spring pancakes. In Chinese these are known as Chun Bing 春饼. They should be almost translucent, durable enough to wrap, and add just that touch of carbohydrate goodness to their task of binding together the contents. A “Pseudo” Peking Duck will often be served with steamed buns instead of pancakes. It’s not a Peking Duck. Even worse, some Chinese American places will attempt to serve “Pseudo” Peking Duck (it’s not roasted like a real Peking Duck either) with (store bought) Mexican Tortillas. Not only does this taste terrible, but it’s sacrilegious and offends the food gods.
Peking duck sauce isn’t a true hoisin, but we will call it that nonetheless. Peking duck sauce is a thick, fragrant sauce commonly used in as a glaze for meat, an addition to stir fry, or as dipping sauce. It is dark-coloured in appearance and sweet and salty in taste. Although regional variants exist, peking duck hoisin sauce is not exactly the same as the Cantonese hoisin, but instead is usually made from Tian Mian Jian (甜面酱), a chef specific blend of fermented yellow soybean paste, fermented wheat, sometimes fruit (like plums), and the oil from roasted ducks in additional to aromatic ingredients. Tian Mian Jian translates to sweet flour sauce and despite it often having the work “bean” in the description is not primary made from beans. It should be salty, savory, a bit sweet, medium thick, and have a hint of medicinal/herbal quality. It should not be too jammy, watery, or too sweet. Interestingly, it’s actually one of the most important elements of the pancake roll (“bing”) even though it should be used sparingly. One of the reasons “Pseudo” Peking Duck is often inferior is the use of Cantonese hoisin, which while good, is not the same. Peking duck sauce (hoisin) is used — sparingly — to flavor the rolled up pancake (bing) and and to flavor meat eaten on its own.
Accoutrements are anything else potentially added to the pancake roll (“bing”). Minimally it’s julienned cucumber and spring onion but pickles, melon, and other ingredients are frequently found in China. They make interesting and important combinations of flavor.
Bing (Pancake Roll)
Since the rolled up pancake containing duck meat etc is such an important part of Peking Duck I’m going to give it a name, “bing.” Really, bing just flat cake in Chinese, and chun bing is a spring pancake, but I had to call it something. But regardless, the “bing” is the main event of any Peking Duck. It consists of the spring pancake, lightly coated in hoisin, meat, skin, and accoutrements then rolled up into a thin cigar-like shape, possibly folded over a bit at the ends. All of the above elements are required for a proper “bing” and it is very sensitive to flaws in any of them, particularly the pancake itself or hoisin. The score for this category is about the overall experience of the “bing,” not the individual components themselves. Hoisin should be used sparingly as it can overwhelm other flavors.
It’s long been possible to get a plate of the “bones” of your duck. This is the hacked up remains of the carcass. Depending on the technique and skill of the carver these can be merely a pile of roasted bones or contain quite a lot of tasty meat. More recently, LA Peking Duck restaurants will stir-fry these bones either with “spicy salt” or cumin. This last seems to be new and non traditional but it is delicious. These stir-fried versions are almost always better than the plate of hacked roasted bones, which is often inedible. One place even stir-fries the duck tails, which are fatty and delicious.
For decades it’s been an option to get parts of the meat that aren’t served on the main plates for the “bing” stir-fried or prepped in some manner. The most common are stir-fried with bean sprouts or lettuce cups. I’ve never liked the bean sprout version. The lettuce cups can be fine. Both have very minimal meat and I rarely order them. This is sometimes called “2 ways.”
Duck soup is often sold in a “3 ways” package with the main event duck, a stir-fry, and the soup. At best it’s a mild chicken-like (but duck) soup with tofu and cabbage. At best it can be pleasant and soothing. At worst the soup is very gamey and kinda nasty.
An overall score takes all the relevant above elements into account, presenting a score of Peking Duck quality at a particular restaurant.
The LA Presentations
In LA, there are three basic methods of presentation, which end up in two “on the table” styles:
Table-side Carving, Beijing Style
In this presentation, only really performed at Chang’An in Tustin and Meizhou Dongpo, the whole duck is brought out and carved up table-side to the amusement of the guests. The breast skin is pulled off and the breast is sliced into ovals with some skin attached. It’s generally served on little white duck plates. The table-side presentation is not just for show — although it certainly is fun — but has material impact on the overall Peking Duck experience. Sliced duck meat, and particularly skin, has a lot of surface area and it cools rapidly. Ducks sliced in the kitchen often linger there for a few minutes and come to the table luke warm.
In the Kitchen, Beijing Style
This is pretty much the same as the table-side style, but the carving is all done in the kitchen and the meat and skin are brought out on plates. It should be noted that one appears to get a lot more meat via the Beijing style carve, regardless of it being table-side or not. Generally there are two full plates of skin and meat as opposed to the bowl cut which seems to be closer to half a duck. Kitchen sliced duck will generally be cooler in temperature than table-side duck, and therefore will be drier and seem fattier (hot fat is always better).
The Bowl Cut
Many “classic” LA Peking Duck restaurants bring the duck meat and skin out from the kitchen together on a single large plate. The skinless meat is packed into a soup bowl and then inverted in the center forming a dry packed meat dome. The best skin is cut into rectangular “petals” and arrayed around this dome to form a floral pattern. This system has an efficiency for the kitchen, and does seem to provide some of the crispiest skin in the city (as it’s separate) but the plate is sometimes cool by the time it arrives and the meat is usually lean and dry. Overall, I find it an inferior technique but it does have it’s advocates — namely those who prize the crispy skin above all. There is certainly less meat available via the bowl cut method as it seems to be reserved for the other dishes (that you also have to pay extra for). An additional problem with the bowl method is that there is frequently some delay between carving the duck, arranging the platter, and serving it. The net result is that bowl cut duck is usually not very warm, sometimes room temperature. Hot duck means hot duck fat and is much superior.
Overall ranking is just an order but all of the other categories are rated 1-10. Currently included are only Peking Duck specialty restaurants serving “Real” Peking Duck that I have visited recently and reviewed in detail.
|Overall (of 7)
|Meizhou Dongpo Arcadia
|Ray’s Duck House
|NC Peking Duck
Restaurant: Chang’An Tustin
Location: 13051 Newport Ave, Tustin, CA 92780. (949) 324-5558
Last visited: December 10, 2022
Restaurant: Meizhou Dongpo Arcadia
Location: 400 S Baldwin Ave #2045, Arcadia, CA 91007. (626) 538-4136
Last visited: December 4, 2022
Restaurant: Ray’s Duck House晶瑞轩海鲜酒楼
Location: 4721 Chino Hills Pkwy, Chino Hills, CA 91709. (909) 606-9046
Last visited: January 26, 2022
The overall spread at Ray’s. They used the modern Beijing cut (in the kitchen) and brought it out on the usual two white duck plates. Ray’s serves a really first rate Peking Duck (even if the leg’s and wings were missing). All of the top three places (Ray’s included) are very good and slightly different. Here the skin is the best of any of the modern cut places being delightfully thick and crispy.
In addition, at lunch they have a really excellent dim sum service. Really excellent. The only problem is that the restaurant is located very far east, about 50 miles from Santa Monica! It’s a shame that 2 of the top 3 places are extremely far from LA proper. I have to come back and try the Cantonese banquet dishes and seafood.
Skin was thick, crunchy, airy, and quite spectacular, both the separate parts and the bits on the meat — it was all crunchy! = 9. I actually think this skin was even slightly better than the Happy Duck skin. The fact that the skin on the meat bits was also crunchy was incredible.
Meat was served mostly moon cut with the skin, some dark meat by itself. The wings and legs were missing. And while the meat wasn’t as juicy as MDP it was very very tasty with great duck flavor. Probably the third best meat = 7.
Accoutrements were scallion and cucumbers as usual. This was the weakest element as they had been cut the previous day (most likely) and were dry = 3. However, in the bing it was hard to tell.
Hoisin was great. It wasn’t goopy thick, nor too sweet, and had fabulous on-point flavor = 9.
Bones were on the menu, but they didn’t think we needed them = N/A.
A full review of Ray’s is in the works.
Restaurant: Duck House Restaurant 鹿鼎記
Location: 501 S Atlantic Blvd, Monterey Park, CA 91754. (626) 284-3227
Last visited: December 22, 2022
Duck House is one of the SGV’s classic… well you guessed it… duck houses. Hostess and owner Catherine used to operate Tasty Duck but moved years ago to this location and she’s one of the best hostesses in town. Not only do they serve great Peking Duck but they have a wonderful all around menu. The decor is excellent in the height of 2000ish Monterey Park style and they have nice private rooms. They prepare the duck in the kitchen with a gas oven and then serve it using the SGV “bowl cut” style. Bones and even duck tails are available a number of ways as I’m sure are stir-fries and duck soup.
Skin was very thick and crispy, really delicious = 9.
Meat was dry without the skin, but fairly pleasant flavor = 6.
Pancake was thin and translucent, but a bit sticky = 8.
Hoisin was very good. Not too thick, sweet and savory, with a hint of medicinal tone but not off-putting = 8.
Accoutrements were scallion and cucumbers as usual plus a spread of pickles, mustard sauce, corn flakes, and raw garlic = 9. These extra four condiments were specially prepared for us by the owner, they aren’t always available, but is totally worth asking about!
The bing together was a 8/10 because the pancake/hoisin is the most important component.
Bones are very good both salty and cumin style.
The duck tails are to die for. Little bits of super crispy fat!
Duck wings are another option.
Extra bonus incredible service!
Restaurant: Ji Rong Peking Duck
Location: 8450 Valley Blvd Suite 115, Rosemead, CA 91770. (626) 280-8600
Last visited: November 1, 2022
In recent years, Ji Rong has risen to be one of Alhambra’s “go to” places for Peking Duck. You must order ahead here and they serve using the “bowl cut” method, but it’s very dependable and they offer a vast array of modern Beijing food that is quite excellent. This includes a variety of western and Sichuan influenced dishes. It’s very popular and feels very 2010s SGV. The “private rooms” are merely separated areas to the side of the main dining room and it can be quite loud. Service is very efficient but young employees sometimes seem at the mercy of the kitchen staff. They have three ways and all that.
Ji Rong skin was very crispy and some of the pieces that were thick were about as good as Happy Duck, however there was a slight funk to it so -1. point for that = 7. Thick pieces maybe an 8.
Meat was packed in a bowl, no skin. White meat was medium dry, also with a slight funk = 4, but the dark meat was better = 7. They do offer the legs with the main dish.
Pancake was thin and resilient = 9.
Hoisin was very good with really nice balance, not perfect, but extremely good = 8.
Accoutrements were scallion and cucumbers as usual = 7.
The bing together was a 8/10 because the pancake/hoisin is the most important component of that.
Restaurant: NC Peking Duck 老北方烤鸭店
Location: 17515 Colima Rd Unit A, City of Industry, CA 91748. (626) 839-0000
Last visited: October 27, 2022
In just the last few years there have been more and more great Chinese restaurant openings in the “far SGV” (Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, City of Industry). NC Peking Duck isn’t the fanciest, but it is a Peking Duck specialty place with a broad menu of Northern Chinese Cuisine and very modern Beijing Style duck. They have a couple of minimalist private rooms and excellent service as well as many great dishes. The duck itself is served in the Beijing Style, but carved in the kitchen. Ducks should be pre-ordered.
NC skin was ultra-thin and crispy, and gets an extra point for some of the pieces having some meat/fat on them = 9 for fatty pieces and 7 for regular ones.
Meat was juicy and flavorful with skin on = 8. On some occasions they plate in the really “classic” double duck dish style.
Pancake was thin and resilient = 9.
Hoisin was tasty but “goopy”, extra thick, and with a bit too much medicinal tone = 5.
Accoutrements were scallion and cucumbers as usual = 7. Before the pandemic they offered this incredible 9 way deluxe accoutrement spread, which would have earned a 10! Hopefully they bring it back.
The bing together was a 6/10, dinged mostly by the hoisin.
They offer cumin bones.
Or very meaty “chopped” bones.
Restaurant: Happy Duck House
Location: 18210 Gale Ave, City of Industry, CA 91748. (626) 581-4747
Last visited: October 27, 2022
Happy Duck is also located out in the far SGV. As a restaurant I’m not that much of a fan. It’s just a little mom and pop place with no atmosphere and a fairly boring mixed “duck house” and Cantonese menu. Others like it better. It’s not bad at all, just not exciting to me (no spicy dishes). However they do offer “Real” Peking Duck and it’s pretty decent. Service is very friendly. Ducks should be preordered.
Happy Duck skin is unusually crispy and delicious, almost spongy = 8.5 (some people in our group think a 9). This skin has its devotees and some people thing it’s the best skin in the city — certainly it’s very good skin. They have a special “torching” technique here that crisps up the skin.
Meat was dry and served packed into a rice bowl and served as a dome (no skin) = 5.
Pancake was house-made but chewy and uneven, really disappointing = 5.
Hoisin was very sweet but tasty, with a strong medicinal taste = 6.
Accoutrements featured fresh spring onions but flabby cucumbers = 4.
Bing with everything rolled up was a 4/10, dinged hugely for the pancake and hoisin.
Like most duck places they have duck soup.
And duck and bean-sprout stir-fry, which is pretty bland and dry.
A lot of duck houses also have eel sticky rice and this is actually the best version of this dish I’ve ever had. Eel was perfectly cooked and the rice was great too.
Restaurant: Tasty Duck
Location: 1039 E Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776. (626) 572-3885
Last visited: November 16, 2022
Tasty Duck was one of our “go to” duck places for around a decade and it’s located in a small, crowded, not-particularly-attractive space in the center of Alhambra. Ducks should be preordered and they traditionally served in the “bowl cut” style. The last time we went they had new owners and tried to cut table-side in the Beijing Style and made a real hack job of the duck. They offer 3 ways and we did “up the ante” by bringing half a pound of fresh caviar.
Skin was very thin, oily, and not very crispy. And there wasn’t that much of it = 4.
Meat was juicy, but was gamey, luke warm, and not particularly appealing. Attached skin was soggy = 5.
Pancake was thin and translucent = 9.
Hoisin was absolutely first rate. Not too thick, sweet and savory, with a hint of medicinal tone but not off-putting = 9.
Accoutrements were scallion and cucumbers as usual, but extra point for sugar and melon = 8.
The bing together was a 6/10 because the pancake/hoisin is the most important component of that. Caviar was BYOC so not normally available.
Duck soup was terrible with a barn-like flavor = 2.
Duck stir-fry. Bleh. I don’t get this dish.
Extra bonus for table side carving — although it was a duck massacre!
As the Southern California duck situation evolves I will continue to update this page. In addition I may list places with “Pseudo” Peking Duck and revisit fusion restaurants with Peking Duck like Merois, Mr. Chow, and Chinois. There are also a couple places I haven’t been in a long time, like Shin Beijing, which serve a Peking Duck somewhere between “real” and “pseudo” or just some places like Moon House that serve passable (real) Peking Duck but are of a lesser status so I haven’t rolled into the grid.
Last Updated: January 3, 2023.sharethis_button(); ?>