I’ve never eaten a lot of Peking Duck. Because Peking Duck requires planning. And I’ve never been very good at planning.
In Toronto, Chinese was usually something done on a Saturday night, after Ronnie Hawkins closed his last set at Le Coq d’Or with Bluebirds Over The Mountain. Someone like my old friend Peter Ross would exclaim, “What’s say we tie on the feed bag and stumble on over to Sai Woo!”
We’d walk the three blocks down to Dundas and Elizabeth, usually singing Rompin’ Ronnie’s Forty Days, to the heart of Chinatown where you’d find the big three Chinese that stayed up as late as we did. Sai Woo, Kwong Chow or Lichee Garden. All three were about half a football field in size, all were on second floors and at least two had these mysterious uniformed guys who guarded the bottom of the stairs. We called them commissionaires. I was never sure what that word meant or what they meant when they spoke these words in the first person plural: “We’re not taking anything upstairs that we shouldn’t are we boys?”
When we’d climbed the stairs, we’d always order the same thing and it would never be Peking Duck. Even though it was always on the menu, always in bold type, and always highlighted in a box. Because under the words Peking Duck were the words 24 Hours Notice Required.
That was Toronto. This is San Miguel. And though I still try to live for the moment, I must admit that I spend a lot more time reminiscing about the past and planning the minutes left in my future. So much so my friends call me the organizer. At least when it comes to food.
I was on line, on Dragon Chino‘s website, looking for something different and there it was. Peking Duck with, of course, those other words 24 Hours in Advance. I decided right then I’d make plans for Peking Duck. And decided it would make a good theme for a gentlemen’s lunch.
The earliest mention of roast duck in China is with a dish called Shaoyazi in the Complete Recipes for Dishes and Beverages manual written in 1330 by Hu Sihui, an inspector of the imperial kitchen. The Peking Roast Duck that came to be associated with the term was fully developed during the later Ming Dynasty. The first restaurant specializing in Peking Duck, Bianyifang, was established in what was then Peking and is now Beijing in 1416 and is still open today. At Qianmen Quanjude, another Beijing restaurant, they have served over 100,000,000 Peking Ducks.
The original ducks used to prepare Peking Duck were small birds with black feathers that lived in the canals around Nanking. With the relocation of the Chinese capital to Beijing, barge traffic increased and often these barges would spill grain into the canals, providing food for the ducks.
Nowadays, Peking Duck is prepared from the white Pekin duck and the five birds, each weighing in at almost five pounds, that fed the 19 guys who’d gathered at Dragon Chino were just like Don Day and raised in Canada.
There are many ways to prepare Peking Duck. At Dragon Chino, the process began by coating the birds with a honey mixture that gives the birds a candy apple glow.
They were then hung for five to six hours which helped eliminate a lot of the fat. Next they were steamed for an hour and a half. Then finally, they spent 25 minutes in the oven to be crisped up before being carved and chopped into thin, moist slices.
The traditional and most popular way to serve Peking Duck is in a thin pancake with slices of meat that includes the skin (and the more skin the better in most of the guys’ opinions), scallions, slices of cucumber and hoisin sauce. At Dragon Chino, tortillas are a good substitute for the pancakes.
The meat was tender, moist, full of flavor and, most importantly, not the tiniest bit greasy. Though I may not have had a lot of Peking Duck, a lot of Peking Duck that I’ve had has been a little like drinking a cup of 10W40. I must admit I had some doubts that a restaurant in the middle of Mexico could pull off a dish that restaurants in a city in Canada, with hundreds of thousands of Chinese residents, has failed so often at. I was very, very wrong. Dragon Chino‘s Peking Duck was up there with the best I’ve ever had.
And there was more to come. Luis Vargas, owner of Dragon Chino, whose great-grandfather immigrated from mainland China, had reserved some of the duck and had combined it with bamboo shoots, mushrooms, celery, red peppers and green onions in a garlic sauce. It was plated beautifully with an apple carved into a duckling ready to swim through the sauce.
Bob Cumming said, “I’ve never seen presentation like that from a Chinese restaurant before.”
Whenever you get a group of people together and ask whether they want fried or steamed rice, it’s like asking if they’re Republican or Democrat. You’re guaranteed to get an almost equally split vote. I liked that Luis had anticipated our differences by putting plates of both fluffy steamed white and nutty fried brown on the table.
Next up, one more course. The carcasses, legs and wings of the ducks had been placed in the wok for 15 to 20 minutes, along with a salty broth and more vegetables. It was a grand finale to my first ever Mexican Peking Duck.
This is my twelfth winter in San Miguel de Allende and, as the guys walked back to Centro and that same old friend Peter Ross said, “What’s say we stop in at La Palapa for one more beer or two”, all I could think of was what took me so long to order that duck. Dragon Chino hasn’t been around for all of those years but, when it comes to what is, in my opinion, the most special of all Chinese delicacies, Dragon Chino definitely has all of its ducks in a row.
Dragon Chino is located at Salida de Celaya #71 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Peking Duck is available with at least 24 hours notice by contacting Luis Vargas at 415 185 8686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. A single course treatment with tortillas, scallions and hoisin sauce is priced at $575 pesos and serves up to four people. If you would like to duplicate the gentlemen who lunch’s three course meal, the cost is $650 pesos and again serves up to four. Dragon Chino is open Monday to Saturday, Noon to 10:00 pm; Sunday, Noon to 9:00 pm.