Thursday, March 14, 2013

Where You Might Least Expect It: Peking Gourmet Inn

Peking Gourmet Inn
It is no secret that I love encountering a perfect dish, a perfect food in a setting where you might least expect it. Most often, this occurs in inelegant strip malls away from city centers. And so this is especially true of a place called Peking Gourmet Inn near Falls Church, Virginia. Close enough to DC to drive, and just enough out of the way so that only those who know actually make the trip. 
It's definitely in a strip mall. It's a little bigger than your average Chinese take out joint, but not big enough or gaudy enough from the outside to attract the attention you'd think necessary for people to notice and make a pit stop on their way to the local Target. Like I said, someone's got to clue you in to this place, or you'll never know it existed. That person could be any number of DC politicos, reporters, or perhaps a few Chinese friends that you're visiting close by. Whoever told you about this place is basically a friend for life, and you better believe that you owe him/her/them a big fat culinary solid later on. You are about to have the best Peking duck you could possibly pray for on the East Coast. 
Note: Reservations
are recommended
Once you enter, you'll notice the hoards of people waiting. They all know, and have been smart enough to make a reservation. Hopefully you too have your name written on a sheet of paper by one of the three air traffic controllers directing diners to their tables. (They have ear pieces and everything.) After waiting a few minutes and enjoying the smell of crispy duck skin wafting through the air, you'll be led to your table, and one of the wonderful servers, smiling and happy to answer questions, will take your drink order. It really don't matter what you order to drink. Order a sloppy, boozy cocktail if you want. Just don't blow out your taste buds. 
So what do you order? Well, you order the Peking Duck, Captain Obvious. What else? Well, if you're really pressed, I went old school Americanized Chinese just for the hell of it (I guess I was in a bit of a weird mood), and I have to admit that a few shared appetizers were pretty darn tasty.
Hot and sour soup
First, the hot and sour soup was lovely. With plenty of heat and extra sour, the soup had bits of pork and other pieces of tofu, tofu skin, wood ear mushroom and bamboo. Awaken the palate? You bet.
Second, we enjoyed the complementary plate of crispy fried noodles which are distributed to every table as a snack. Crispy, a touch salty, and not at all greasy. Popping little pieces of fried noodle while waiting for the big show and talking about it in depth is all part of the delightful anticipation.
Fried wontons
Third, we also went for some fried wontons. Don't turn up your nose. Everybody loves these things. Crispy fried wonton skins that seal off a juicy, porky center. It's savory and sweet from the pork, and then has that extra oomph delivered by the outer crunch of fried goodness. 
Szechuan Beef Proper
Being the gluttons that we are, we also ordered the Szechuan Beef Proper, which admittedly always seems like overkill by the time it arrives. But I'm not sure that you can get this dish anywhere else, and therefore it justifies the extra calories. A plate of strips of well done beef, piled high on a plate with celery, sesame seeds and carrot arrives at the table. Little do you suspect the hidden punch that each piece of meat conceals. No, it's not spicy. It's candied. Each piece of beef is perfectly coated with a downright crunchy, slightly salted candy sauce. It's delicious, and it's different. After a night of drinking, this dish cold basically makes the best breakfast of all time. Just sayin'...
Carving the duck
And then the barrage of the duck begins. A very skilled duck butcher arrives at the side of your table with a stand in which to slice the whole duck. They will carefully but efficiently slice pieces of the crispy part of the skin of the duck, forgoing all of the fat, into pieces about the size of the top of a soda can. After there is no more skin to be had, the fat is discarded, so that the meat of the bird can get it's due attention. They carve the duck breasts, remove the legs and wings, and present everything lovingly on two separate plates. I always head into this restaurant feeling that maybe we should order two ducks. But this is a complete case of time making me forget and my eyes always struggling to win the title of "bigger" versus my stomach. (My stomach is catching up though.) One duck for three people is enough. 
Hallelujah! Duck!
Legs and wings
Caught in the hypnotic dance of the duck carving, you may or may not notice as your server places a plate with a cloche on top on your table. When you finally awaken from your zone out, you'll see that there is a plate of zesty, garlicky sliced spring onions and a second of similarly julienned sticks of cucumber. Then, the waiter will remove the cloche to reveal the loveliest, most authentic Chinese pancakes. With two spoons in one hand, utilized in the style of chop sticks, and a single spoon in the other, he'll move a pancake to each diner's plate. He'll then add the plum sauce, smeared onto each pancake. Next, he'll move on to the cucumber and onions. Finally, he turns his attention to the duck. A single piece of skin, and a single slice of the duck meat goes onto each pancake. And now the show takes a crazy turn. This guy is going to use his spoon chop sticks to fold each pancake into their characteristic cylinder or burrito formation. It's one of those parlor tricks I really want to learn to impress my in laws. No progress yet.
A perfect bite
But the flavor? Memorable. Unforgettable. Enough to turn you away from any other version of this dish that you've had that previously would have been counted as "pretty tasty." When you have a combination of sturdy, homemade wrapper, sweet and salty plum sauce, the sharpness of the onion and the freshness of the cucumber perfectly married in a single bite with succulent, tender cooked through duck, and duck skin so crispy, oily and down right unctuous that it's going to put bacon to shame, man, it don't get much better. One bite for the books. And then another, and then another. Even when the pancakes are gone, you can still move onto little leftover bits of skin, and those legs and wings. This is a dish worth fighting over. Seriously, I considered taking my own mother out in order to snatch that last piece of skin. 
Take it from my Mom.
So good, you can't
stop smiling. 
Any trip to visit friends and family in DC is incomplete without a final hurrah meal at Peking Gourmet. It's worth going out of DC, even if you had only planned on eating at fancy pants places inside of the city. Whenever I'm craving duck, these are the images that dance in my head, and I suddenly start finding reasons to head back south. Special thanks to my father in law, who first introduced us to this hidden gem, and if you go, continue to spread the word. 

Peking Gourmet Inn

6029 Leesburg Pike
Baileys Crossrds, VA 22041

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