As bad as the pandemic has been, we’ve all needed to look for small silver linings along the way. In my case, it’s been the rediscovery of the mid-20th century Toishanese/Cantonese favorite, pressed almond duck.
20th-century Chinese dishes such as chop suey have been described as Americanized and inauthentic. But many dishes from this era, including chow mein, fried rice, and wonton soup, certainly are authentic, as they were enjoyed by the Toishanese who constituted most of the Chinese immigrants living in the United States.
As a young child in the midcentury, one of my favorite Chinese dishes was war sui opp, or pressed almond duck. If you’ve never eaten it, it consists of deep fried shredded duck meat cubes in a gloppy brown sauce and garnished with lettuce and crushed almonds. To steal a tagline from this era, it was indescribably delicious.
I’m not sure exactly where on the authenticity continuum pressed almond duck should be placed. I doubt it would be high on the authenticity scale since it didn’t appear in the United States until perhaps the 1940s, when immigration from China to the United States had been virtually ended for many years. This dish wasn’t brought over by Toishanese/Cantonese immigrants. Instead, almond duck is associated with Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic, a Chinese/Polynesian genre of food that spawned such inauthentic offerings as crab Rangoon and pu-pu platters. Due to its relatively late introduction, every restaurant seemingly follows the same original recipe, tasting and looking the same just about everywhere.
On the other hand, almond duck does have ties to some more authentic Chinese dishes both in China and in the United States. Consider the companion dish to war shu opp (opp being Cantonese for duck), war sui gai (gai being Cantonese for chicken). War shu gai dates back at least a decade before war shu opp, and as I mentioned in my piece on Chinese-American regional specialties, is strangely peculiar to Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, and Louisville. Visually, the duck and chicken dishes are not similar. War sui gai is a deep-fried flat chicken steak that’s cut into diagonal strips. Conceptionally, however, they are both deep-fried boneless poultry cut into bite-sized pieces, indicating at least some degree of authenticity in preparation style.
Here in Los Angeles, I cut my teeth, almond duck-wise, at Paul’s Kitchen. Its vicinity near the City Market produce terminal served as LA’s “real” Chinatown from the 1930s to the 1960s. With its Chinese businesses, residents, and institutions (and without the faintest hint of tourism), this “secret” Chinatown developed after the original Los Angeles Chinatown was torn down to make way for Union Station. The “New Chinatown” constructed a few blocks away was conspicuously devoid of any residential areas, turning it into a Chinese-themed tourist destination with virtually no Chinese residents.
When the late 1960s brought a rewrite of our country’s immigration laws, the demographics of the Chinese American community changed. Old-time Cantonese-American cuisine began to fade. Lovers of pressed almond duck found fewer outlets to sate their cravings. Today, local online message boards identify just a handful of restaurants scattered throughout the Los Angeles area: Chinese Garden and Canton City in Montebello, Fu Sing in Torrance. Fortunately, Paul’s Kitchen continues to operate, even as the City Market neighborhood has been swallowed up by the adjacent garment district. These days, I wouldn’t drive to any of these scattered eateries to eat pressed duck, particularly with all kinds of new amazing Chinese dishes continually arriving in the San Gabriel Valley (not to mention pressed duck tends to be a real grease bomb, something I could do without at this stage of my life).
So how has the pandemic led me to rediscover pressed almond duck? Well, when I described the early effect of the pandemic on Chinese restaurants, I mentioned Kim’s Restaurant, which closed in March as the result of anti-Chinese harassment. Customers in the surrounding Crenshaw neighborhoods, initially unable to contact the owners, rallied in support of the restaurant and ultimately persuaded them to reopen.
When I lived in Crenshaw for many years, Kim’s Restaurant was my closest Chinese restaurant. But I seldom ate its highly Americanized Chinese food, trekking first to the City Market area, then later to the San Gabriel Valley. Indeed, the only reason my family ever visited Kim’s at all was that one of our favorite waiters from On Luck Restaurant started working at Kim’s.
But after seeing what happened with the closing and reopening of Kim’s Restaurant, I decided to revisit. I had actually looked at the menu several times before even noticing the almond duck. I was stunned to find it, because Kim’s Restaurant had never come up in online discussions looking to find this increasingly scarce dish. When I finally came back, the familiar fried duck met me with a little crunch inside, a few nuts on the outside, and that wonderful gloppy brown sauce and lettuce on the side. And guess what? Kim’s version is hardly greasy at all! Now, pretty much any time I’m in the Crenshaw area, I’m sure to be back.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.