Chinese roast duck might be the most forthright food in Seattle.
There they hang, naked, in windows and heated glass boxes, inviting your inspection.
Nothing is hidden. No menus, no descriptions necessary. It is a stone-cold lock: What you’re served will match what you ordered.
Other point-and-serve foods all have slightly more mediation between display and fulfillment. COVID-19 seems to have killed salad bars and buffet lines. Pizza slices require a return trip to the oven. Even dim sum steamer baskets have lids.
But there’s just a cleaver and chopping block between you and those ducks.
They are burnished, mahogany, gleaming, taut. Adjectives fail.
They hang in windows, smudged with a patina of grease and scrubbing, throughout the Chinatown International District. King’s Barbecue House, Ton Kiang B.B.Q. Noodle House, A Chau Asia Bar-B-Que, Harbor City. They’re in North Seattle at Hong King Dim Sum. They’re in Asian grocery stores throughout the region: Uwajimaya, Lam’s Seafood Market, The Great Wall Shopping Mall.
I love them all.
But the godfather of roast ducks in the Seattle area is Kau Kau, where they’ve been roasting meat — pork and ducks mainly — for more than 60 years.
Wai C. Eng opened Kau Kau in 1959. He was tired of driving to Vancouver, B.C., to get good Chinese barbecue, said his daughter, Lynn Eng Chang, and son-in-law, Richard Chang.
Wai was born in China but emigrated to the United States and spent time in Hawaii during college and while serving in the military during the Korean War. Men in his family going back several generations had worked in pineapple fields in Hawaii, while sending money home to China.
So he named his restaurant Kau Kau, Hawaiian slang for “good food” or “to eat.”
He opened downtown in 1959, opened this location in the Chinatown ID in 1974, eventually decided two restaurants was too much, and closed the original in 1985.
Today, they roast 30 to 40 ducks a day, 50 to 60 on weekends. It’s a multiday process.
Ducks are thawed and rinsed. They are rubbed with a spice mix that includes salt, sugar, black pepper and five-spice powder. There are more ingredients. Chang doesn’t want to say what they are.
“That’s the secret of Kau Kau,” he protests.
They’re swabbed with a marinade that includes bean sauce and soy sauce and a stainless steel needle stitches shut the cavity.
Then they’re hung in a refrigerator for 24 hours to dry out.
Still on their hangers, they’re roasted at 450 to 500 degrees for about an hour in one of Kau Kau’s two vertical gas ovens. Up to eight ducks at a time. “We cook them all day long,” Chang says.
Then, still on the hangers, they rest in the heat box behind the takeout counter at the front of the restaurant.
Order one and watch it portioned in front of you. Ducks are not carved — the meat daintily removed from the carcass like a Thanksgiving turkey — they are chopped. Each piece has meat, skin and bone.
Only two men work the butcher block at Kau Kau. Hock Wo works weekends and has been at Kau Kau since 1972, before this location opened. Lam Liu has wielded a cleaver at Kau Kau for the last 23 years, a veritable rookie.
He takes the duck off its hanger and lays it, with the breast side up, on the block.
Two thwacks of the cleaver and he’s cut the duck in half. A slice to guide and a chop to sever and he’s removed a wing. Two more chops portion it, then the cleaver becomes a spatula as he lifts the three pieces into the plastic clamshell serving box.
He is careful and methodic, but turn your head and you’ll miss it. His work so far has taken eight seconds. Be quick but don’t hurry, John Wooden said.
Next, his tongs grab the duck by its leg and two swift chops separate thigh from back and drumstick from thigh. Four thwacks divide the thigh. Four more, diagonal to the grain, and he’s done with the breast and back.
A drumstick is cleaved in two and he gingerly places it atop the rest, in the to-go box, nestling it just so with tongs and cleaver.
He repeats it all with the second half.
There is no sawing, no hacking, no pounding. The weight of the cleaver does the work. Each stroke precise, an economy of motion. It is a modest marvel. Like a jump shot or an arabesque.
The butcher’s block is noticeably concave, the result of hundreds of strikes a day. Chang says the 6-inch-thick blocks need replacing about every nine months.
Duck comes with two sauces: a plum sauce — fruit conserved with sugar and vinegar — and a brown sauce — duck juices and drippings mixed with soy. They’re at once very good and a little superfluous.
Because it’s tough to improve on that duck. The meat is rich and mineral. The skin is crisp and glorious. A former co-worker, an avowed atheist, once stumbled upon a perhaps-spurious report on the health benefits of duck fat and proclaimed it “proof that God loves us.”
Chang and Eng Chang have run Kau Kau since 2003, when her father retired. She grew up there, hostessing and working the register.
“My parents actually forced me to, I didn’t love it,” she laughs.
Her kids grew up there, too, although in a different way. Her father used to bring her son, his grandson, barbecue pork and duck sauce over rice when he’d pick him up from school.
“That would be his afternoon treat,” Eng Chang said of her son, now in his 20s. “He calls the chopper Barbecue Pork Uncle.”
Their kids have little interest in following in their footsteps. One is a property manager, one works for People magazine. And it’s the same with their employees, Chang said, all of whom have worked at Kau Kau for at least five or six years.
“All of their daughters and sons all went to university, every single one of them,” Chang said. “The restaurant business is a tough business.”
“The kids hear us griping,” Eng Chang says.
“They’re not going to take over,” Chang says. “After my generation, I think Kau Kau is done.”