Spice island

Flavorful sauces add zing to the offerings at China Yuan

click to enlarge HOOKED ON A CEILING: The barbecued birds in China Yuan hang on display for diners. - Lisa Mauriello
Lisa Mauriello
HOOKED ON A CEILING: The barbecued birds in China Yuan hang on display for diners.

"We've gotta get one of those," says one of my companions, pointing to an array of plucked birds hanging from hooks in a glass case at the back of China Yuan's exceptionally bright dining area.

The lighting is surgical-suite bright, assisted by the white-on-white décor of the small room. Except for one anomaly: the display case full of barbecued animals.

Several are hanging by their delicate, desiccated necks. At one end of the bird is a sight that you rarely see in our sanitized restaurant world: your dinner's head, cooked along with the rest of the body, eye sockets beaming an empty stare that is not nearly as accusatory as you might think. The body is stained in shades of honey, caramel and mahogany, the colors of a bamboo-trimmed armoire from Pier 1. The fat is almost completely rendered, leaving the skin taught and crisp and slightly fuzzy with the detritus of a plucking job that's less than thorough.

These are ducks, of course, a staple here at China Yuan, where owner Peter Chan barbecues more than 100 every week to be sold for take-out and at the table. There are also chickens in the case — pale and plain or darkened with soy, sides of pork that look like over-cured bacon, and a bin of duck feet and wings.

Which we order first thing, eliciting a slight chuckle and a "you sure?" from our amused server. Sure, duck feet ($2) — nothing but skin and cartilage — are, for all intents and purposes, inedible, and duck wings are fatty, stringy versions of their chicken brethren. But I must uphold my hardcore eating cred, right? Or maybe I'm overcompensating for the fact that our table is peopled by the only non-Asians in the place. In any case, most of the glistening wings and feet go uneaten.

The rest of the duck ($8) is another story entirely. We watch Chan pull a bird off the hook and separate it into two halves with a hefty cleaver, then hack our half into neat inch-wide pieces, bones and all. The meat is a little spongy, but it's seasoned throughout by rendered fat carrying the five-spice powder that coats the crisped skin. Maybe it won't lure me across town as a substitute for rotisserie chicken, but it's good.

Better are slices of barbecue pork ($4.50), chopped off one of the slabs in the cabinet, and half a chicken steamed in soy ($3.95). The pork is succulent and dry at the same time, the way a very fatty piece of pork can get when cooked very slowly for a very, very long time. It also has a tickle of five-spice — obviously the seasoning of choice here at China Yuan. Chicken, likely due to the steaming, is exceptionally moist despite the stay in the hotbox, with just enough salt from the soy-darkened skin to season the meat.

By this time, everyone at the table has taken to adding heaping spoonfuls of China Yuan's hot pepper garlic sauce to their plates. The brick-red oil, fortified with minced pepper skins and seeds, and whole cloves of roasted garlic, is bolstered by a mysterious fresh flavor that none of us can identify. "Oh yeah," says Chan. "It's got a secret ingredient."

Apparently, some of his customers pay for vats of the stuff to take home, while others might go through two jars of it during a single meal. That's a little more spice than I'm after, but I can see the attraction. When tossed with China Yuan's salt fish and chicken fried rice ($7.95), the blend of flavors is astounding. Each bite is an explosion of intense salt, spice, garlic and oil, carried by the otherwise delicate wokked rice. The special ingredient is the key to the whole experience, mediating the power of the heat and freshening the palate for the next forkful of goodness.

The cubes of beef in China Yuan's brisket hot pot ($9.50) are as silky and luscious as homemade pot roast. There is a lot of connective tissue still clinging to the meat, but it is rendered soft and silky by the long, slow braise. "Asians like that; it's good," assures Chan, and he watches as I gamely chew through bite after bite of meat and tendon. It's worth the effort, especially when joined with the crunchy cabbage that lines the bottom of the bowl.

Besides the barbecue and beef, China Yuan is a primarily Cantonese joint, largely represented by seafood and veggies doused in delicate oyster or pungent black bean sauce. Sure, my squid ($8.50) is so chewy that it's a tossup whether the beef or these tubes of calamari take more mastication, but the sauce is worth it. Subtly salty, deeply earthy fermented beans are paired with shakes of fresh black pepper to give the stir-fry multiple layers of flavor. Add in some more of that hot sauce, and it's almost too much to handle.

No complaints; this is what I'm after. Following my disappointing trip to an "Asian" buffet a few weeks ago, several readers e-mailed me with their suggestions for a more authentic experience. Thankfully, China Yuan's name kept popping up.

Even with the duck feet and sections of connective tissue left untouched on our plates, we seem to have passed some sort of test with Chan. "Your order like Asians order," he says, and proceeds to disclose the secret of his hot sauce. As soon as he mentions the missing link that turns mundane spice into superior fresh flavor, I can taste it. Simple, but brilliant.

He doesn't swear us to secrecy, assuring me that the way he makes it cannot be replicated, but I'm still not going to reveal the special ingredient. You'll have to stretch your flaccid taste buds and hope you impress China Yuan's owner enough that he'll let you in on the secret.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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