Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - July 1, 2011

Peking Duck settles into new nest

Extensive menus tough to navigate, but duck dishes are worth it

by Sheila Himmel

Peking Duck could be the restaurant to break the jinx of 151 S. California Ave., hidden in the middle of the Palo Alto Central building. In the year since moving here, the restaurant has regained its footing, particularly with larger tables and Chinese customers.

Peking Duck spent more than 20 years on El Camino and won many fans for its namesake dish. But the building had gotten shabby. Peking Duck was booted out to make way for a brand-new Panda Express, a fast-food Chinese chain based in Southern California.

Peking Duck turned the corner, literally, and moved in with the Jade Palace restaurant four blocks away. For a while, each had its own menu, which was confusing. Now there's still a sign saying Jade Palace and a banner saying Peking Duck, but the voluminous menus list items from both restaurants. You get handed three or four menus, which is still confusing.

The pleasantly sky-lighted dining room has housed Indian, Italian and Mediterranean restaurants. Orangey wash-painted walls must have been from one of those previous eras. Two duck decoys sit on the bar, as if to confirm you're in the right place.

A half-order of Peking Duck ($15.50) is pre-sliced and served with hoisin sauce, cucumber sticks, scallion strings and Mandarin pancakes. The duck is delicious, even better if you bring more people and justify a whole duck ($30), sliced tableside.

The signature dish also is available as one duck done three ways ($44). Another favorite is smoked tea duck ($15.50). In addition, there's pineapple duck, duck with Peking sauce, five spices crispy duck, boneless duck feet, shredded duck salad, sauteed minced duck in lettuce cups, and vermicelli with shredded duck.

Too many ducks don't spoil the restaurant, but just paging through the menus can be exhausting. Once you know what to order, you can eat very well at Peking Duck.

The dim sum menu is always available. Har gow, the steamed shrimp dumplings ($3.50 for three) served in the bamboo steamer, were acceptable but sticky.

A Chinese menu, in Chinese characters, features individual dishes. We tried one, described as having lots of ingredients ($13) and it did, but they didn't come together: diced zucchini, duck, pork, mushrooms and loads of red and yellow peppers.

The regular multi-page menu includes cold appetizers like Shanghai spiced fish; Hong Kong-style ginger scallion pork ribs; and hot and sour chicken a la Sichuan. There are a dozen soups, three dozen seafood items, and so on. Next to the duck, the best dish we tried was eggplant with minced pork and spicy garlic sauce ($9.50), with small Chinese eggplants cooked perfectly.

Also excellent, a heaping bowl of homemade noodles with hot and spicy beef stew ($7.95) features hunks of beef, mouth-meltingly tender yet appropriately stringy. Thick, chewy homemade noodles show up in soups and six entrees.

A dozen dishes under the heading "Low-Calorie Gourmets" represent the lighter side of vegetables, sauteed or steamed or blanched, with some kind of protein or fungus.

Finally, a menu of chef's specialties includes a refreshing salad of iceberg lettuce, cucumber and pomelo, a grapefruit-like citrus.

Vegetarian offerings are surprisingly limited. At lunch with a vegetarian, the soup of the day was Westlake beef soup with egg drop — no substitutions. But she was able to add broccoli and snow peas to the fried tofu with spicy garlic sauce ($2 added to $7.50) and had more than enough food.

Peking duck became an international sensation in the 1970s, credited with helping pave the way for President Richard Nixon's groundbreaking visit to the People's Republic of China. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had gone first, and his initial meetings didn't go well. Once Kissinger was served Peking duck for lunch, he loved it, talks improved and the next day Nixon was being invited to visit China.

But the history of Peking duck dates back to a recipe found in a 1330 manual of the imperial kitchen. A restaurant specializing in Peking duck was founded in Beijing in 1416. It's a sometimes thing in many Chinese restaurants, which is why fans flock to restaurants like Peking Duck.

Peking Duck

151 S. California Ave., Palo Alto

650-321-9388

Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Reservations: yes

Credit cards: yes

Parking: street

Alcohol: yes

Children: yes

Outdoor dining: no

Party and banquet facilities: yes

Noise level: not bad

Wheelchair access: yes

Bathroom cleanliness: good

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