Aside from a quick trip for a carry-out order of hot and sour Yun Nan-style dumplings – the request of my ailing and stressed-out daughter, so how could I refuse? – my 8th Avenue eating quest has been on hiatus for a couple of weeks. It’s past time to remedy that. And so, on a gray day that threatened to drizzle (but never quite followed through), I headed out once again on an 8th avenue-bound N train with no particular destination in mind.
This time, “no particular destination” turned out to be a Cantonese place on the corner of 53rd Street. In the window: the better part of a roast pig, burnished-red ducks, and some very alarmed-looking chickens. I’d been meaning to add barbecue to a roster that has, until now, been dominated by soupy, noodly Fujianese things, and King’s Kitchen looked like a pretty good bet.
They do a lively carry-out business, but there’s table service as well (pro-tip: grab a menu from the counter on your way in . . . a waiter will seat you, provide you with a place setting and a glass of tea, and take your order, but will not, for some reason, give you a menu).
The sight of other eaters bent low over clay pots filled with rice and various meats persuaded me to save the barbecue for another outing. Rice casseroles seemed to be something of a specialty, and there was one with “preserved duck” ($6.95), which sounded awfully good – so that’s what I ordered.
“Twenty minutes,” the waiter warned me. Fine. There was no other place I had to be. I could spy on other patrons, listen to the “thwack-thwack-thwack” of the meatcutter’s dangerously-large cleaver, even witness a changing of the guard, of sorts, as a new side of pig was brought up front (a kitchen worker struggling under its weight) to replace the depleted one in the window.
Soon enough, my rice casserole arrived steaming in its little clay pot. Bits of preserved duck – chewy and salty, like country ham – were strewn on top, and on the bottom, a crust where rice and duck fat hit hot clay. It was delicious.
In a world of unlimited time and kitchen space, I suppose I could acquire a set of clay casserole dishes and find someplace to buy preserved duck (perhaps that supermarket by the N train has it) and learn to make a reasonable facsimile of duck rice casserole, golden crust and all. But in this world, I know I won’t.
And that’s humbling, in the way that walking into an Asian supermarket and looking at shelves and shelves of foods I have no idea how to prepare (or even whether they are fish or fowl, fruit or fungus) is humbling. The way that watching a Trini cook turn out one bara after another, as though it’s the easiest thing in the world, is humbling. The way that feeling shy and lost because I don’t speak Mandarin-Cantonese-Russian-Uzbek-Urdu-etc.-etc. is humbling. It’s a reminder that this world is a big place, and after more than half a century on it, I’m only just beginning to understand how much of it I’ll never understand.
Some people look up at the night sky to feel insignificant. Me, I head for 8th Avenue and look at Chinese restaurant menus.
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King’s Kitchen, 5223 8th Ave., Sunset Park, Brooklyn 11220