Join us as we go into the kitchen and behind the bar at some of San Francisco’s best-known restaurants and bars to break down the anatomy of their most-famous offerings.
I grew up in ’90s Phoenix suburbia, with Chinese American food as an integral part of my identity. The corner booth of our local restaurant, Peking Palace, was home to my mixed-race family of six multiple times a week. The staff was an extension of our family, the soy-sauced food a compromise between comfort and exploration for my parents of different backgrounds.
When I stepped into Mister Jiu’s for the first time last summer, I was a little taken aback by the difference in ambiance between the two experiences. It wasn’t so much about them being strip mall versus fine dining. It was more that until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much the restaurant I spent so many meals in as a child was actually displaying a performative exoticism designed to appease its suburban clientele. By comparison, Mister Jiu’s projects a quiet confidence in its identity that I didn’t have exposure to growing up. But after settling into a cozy booth with my menu, I was immediately comforted by a sense of familiarity.
On a menu full of treasures, the whole roasted duck is impossible to ignore. My friends and I danced around ordering it. The hour-long wait, the amount of food for a few people, the price tag — it seemed a little over-the-top for a Tuesday after work. But the heady aroma of anise and nostalgia proved too much. And I had a hunch it was going to be a celebration of so much more than just excess.
There are few images more iconic to San Francisco than a Chinatown window full of lacquered whole ducks. Brandon Jew knew he wanted to include an homage to this vignette when he opened Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown in 2016. Jew’s menu has always strived to balance his fine dining training with Bay Area seasonality and nostalgia around Chinese American classics. But as time has passed, he’s made some tweaks to better represent the history of the dishes he serves. The restaurant’s whole roasted Peking-style duck is the epitome of those efforts.
The dish has gone through some iterations over the years. When the restaurant first opened, Jew confited the legs and roasted the crown of the breast separately. It was delicious, but over time he felt a responsibility to decenter his European training and bring the technique back to the classic whole birds that inspired him in the first place. “I’d like to think that we should be making most of our decisions based on a dish being delicious,” Jew says. “But there are these other factors that come into play: where we are in Chinatown, this historic building, being able to pass Chinese techniques on to this next generation of cooks. All these factors make me a little bit more critical of what my food is saying.”
The process, which takes two weeks from delivery to dinner service, starts with the ducks themselves, which Jew sources from Jim Reichardt’s Liberty Farms in Petaluma. Reichardt’s family has been supplying Chinatown with ducks for more than a century, but Reichardt broke off on his own in the ’90s to breed birds to the specifics of the higher-end kitchens in the area. Raised to “slower, less stressful” standards, the birds are bigger, more flavorful, and less fatty than most commercially available birds. Jew was familiar with the product from his work at Zuni Cafe and Quince. He had a hunch the larger breasts would help him achieve a serving temperature of medium versus the well-done bird more typically served in Chinese restaurants. Twice a week, between 20 and 40 Liberty ducks are delivered to Mister Jiu’s. The entire kitchen staff then descends on the delivery for two hours of dedicated prep work.
One of the defining characteristics of Peking duck is its crispy skin. Separating the skin from the meat is a classic technique, allowing for moisture, crispy skin’s nemesis, to be drawn out more evenly and thoroughly from both sides. This is done by inserting an air compressor beneath the skin and inflating it so that it pulls completely away from the meat. The thighs are then deboned, a key step Mister Jiu’s takes to get fully cooked dark meat while delivering medium-cooked breast meat. Prep cooks pull the neck flap over the open cavity and sew it shut with a chopstick. The birds are quickly blanched in hot water, which pulls the loosened skin back taut.
Once dry but still warm, the bodies are rubbed with a combination of brown rice syrup, dark soy sauce, and a custom 10-spice blend made of white pepper, star anise, fennel, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, licorice root, allspice, and bay leaves. The brown rice syrup allows for deep caramelization without sweetness, while soy sauce both seasons and aids deeper coloring.
After seasoning, another chopstick is laid horizontally across the duck’s back. The two drumettes are pierced with the ends. This pulls the wings away from the body, allowing for more airflow as well as pulling the skin tight against the breast. The prepped ducks are loaded into a dedicated walk-in fit with two dehumidifiers and three fans for 10 to 14 days, where they’re left to dry out completely. On any given day the walk-in is stocked with about 100 ducks at different points of the aging process.
The morning of service, the ducks are smoked over wood for up to an hour and rested until dinner. Once an order is in, the clock starts on the 60 minutes requested of diners on the menu.
Roasting is a two-step process that happens in two convection ovens. The duck is cooked gently at 350 degrees Fahrenheit to start, and at 450 to finish. The staggered cook allows the dark meat to break down, keeps the breast meat from overcooking, and delivers ultra-crispy skin. It rests for 20 minutes to let the juices settle before being carved and plated. For a final blast of umami, it’s spritzed with a garum made with duck parts that have fermented with koji for two months.
The other hallmarks of Peking-style duck are the garnishes with which it’s served. Ultra-thin crepe-style pancakes are traditional, and Mister Jiu’s sticks to this classic preparation. Two small balls of hot water dough are oiled and rolled together by hand as thinly as possible. They’re cooked on the stovetop, the interiors steaming through, then peeled apart. A dozen go out with every order, folded and tucked into a covered ceramic dish, keeping them warm and pliable for the duration of the meal.
Chewy pancakes, tender meat, and crispy skin are rounded out with deeply flavored condiments. Hoisin sauce is customary; Mister Jiu’s version is made in-house and boosted with peanut butter. Duck livers are whipped into a mousse flavored with Shaoxing wine and the 10-spice blend, then made richer with butter. The dish is rounded out with a platter of scallion, cilantro, and lightly pickled cucumbers — a bit of freshness to foil the rich flavors and textures.
As this city and its people change, the Asian American identity expands, and our respect for food and technique grows, the team at Mister Jiu’s will continue tweaking and adapting its menu, including this iconic dish. “I still constantly consider how to make it better, but I think our duck is pretty special,” Jew says. “Every time one goes out I feel like someone’s gonna really enjoy that experience.”