In search of the best Peking Roast Duck
Eating and enjoying something you don’t normally like can be a lovable breakthrough during travels. That was what roast duck in this restaurant made me feel.
As there are Chinatowns all over the world it is not difficult to find an eating place where you can order roast duck. In Jakarta (Indonesia) where I stay, Chinese restaurants are very popular and all you need to do to get roast duck on your table is to get to the nearest mall in the city. But to savour Beijing’s signature dish in Beijing can be a game-changer for your palate. At the same time, zeroing in on the best of the best restaurants which serve ducks can be challenging where communication may not be smooth at all. That’s where the internet helps.
Once you see pictures of personalities like Al Gore, Anthony Bourdain and many Chinese and Hong Kong film stars dining at a restaurant, you decide that it is something special, a kind of a must-try. But this is not the only thing which brought me to Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant which lies hidden in one of those still-thriving traditional hutongs (old alleys) in the centre of Beijing. It was also the descriptions of an old Chinese courtyard, unassuming façade which is retrospective of bygone eras and the story of a family-managed restaurant. Dozens of reviews on top travel websites all echoing positive vibes without a hint of grumbling about this place was quite impressive. The warning that without booking a table you might be required to wait at least an hour only increased my curiosity. In other words, I was not hoping to taste Beijing roast duck in a posh, comfy fine dining ambience of which there is no dearth in big cities. I wanted to get into the traditional Chinese atmosphere and absorb history when my tongue wouldn’t let go of a single part of the crispy and succulent roast duck.
We did not book a table; instead we hired a tricycle rickshaw from our hotel and travelled around the hutongs early morning. The rickshaw man knew the restaurant and he quickly nodded his head when we showed him the name of restaurant written in Mandarin. We reached there well before its opening time of 11.00 am. We were met at the door by the owner Mr. Zhang Li Qun himself who took us inside and showed us around. As you enter a narrow inner corridor you are led straight to the room where the ducks are hung on hooks in a brick wood oven. There’s a chef stationed most of the time to tend to the roasting. We were told that Li Qun uses different kinds of wood like apple, peach and plum wood in the oven to enhance the roast duck taste. At this point itself we were getting hungry.
We moved into the courtyard and on the way we found photos of celebrities and VIPs dining here, covering almost the whole wall. The courtyard has 4 tables, each seating 4 to 5 persons and the place is a bit cramped. It is surrounded by two kitchens and 4 rooms which are probably reserved for family or group dining. Apart from the arrangement of tables and chairs and the placement of refrigerators with soft drinks and beer, the place looked like a traditional house, giving you that authentic feeling. After having a chit chat with the owner who spoke a bit of English we reserved a table for 1 pm.
The warnings were correct. We saw a row of people waiting for their turn to get into the restaurant. As we arrived, we were quickly ushered in and escorted to our table. We ordered one full duck to be roasted and made crispy in the Li Qun style. This is typically served with the following side dishes along with rice: sliced spring onion, sliced cucumber, plain and very thin pancake and plum or mustard sauce. You are supposed to make a pancake roll with a duck slice and spring onion and cucumber, dip it in the sauce and eat it. It tastes great with rice. We also ordered fried beansprouts as extra vegetables.
The duck is cooked to perfection – almost every part of it is cooked to a crunch, the head, the feet and the intestines. Duck livers and gizzards are popular items on the menu here. As your duck is ready, it is brought to your table and sliced in enviable precision right in front of you. This is an art form in itself, not an everyday kitchen affair. The cooks here are adept at it and they do it moment after moment. According to Zhang Li Qun, more than 50 ducks are sold daily. On weekends and holidays the number soars even higher.
For a full duck roasted I paid RMB 260. With two bowls of rice and beansprouts and a pot of Chinese tea it came to about RMB 350 (roughly USD 55).
On our way out, we could see several customers (both local and foreign) taking their turns to take a picture with Zhang Li Qun in front of the restaurant. So, when in Beijing, do not miss this humble Chinese courtyard which probably serves the best roast duck in the city. Get into a tricycle rickshaw and ask for ‘Lee Choon kaoyadian’. Kaoyadian stands for roast duck restaurant. The following is the full address:
Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant
11 Beixiangfeng Hutong, off Zhengyi Lu, Chongwenmen, Beijing
Tel: +86 (0)10 6705 5578
Chinese name: 利群烤鸭店
Chinese address, with directions: 崇文区前门东大街北翔凤胡同11号 (正义路南口)