Van Loi II good for me, bad for the duck

by Brian Clarey

It can only be described as serendipitous: I answer a cravingfor Asian barbecue by driving down High Point Road to afavorite Vietnamese restaurant and as I pull up I see the unmistakable,fl ame-red pelt of my old friend Madeline Greco,AKA Foxy Moxy, as she makes for the door.I generally eat lunch alone. Not today.We take a table in the take-out side of the dining room, where about adozen roasted ducks and half a roasted hog hang in a heated glass case.

It reminds me of New York City’s Chinatown, where my parents used totake me when I was young. I thought the ducks hanging in the windowof the shops to be gruesome and peculiar back then. Now they make mymouth water.

With a preponderance of Asian restaurants that run the gamut fromIndian to Thai, this section of High Point Road is what passes for Chinatown— and Koreatown, and Little Saigon, and, for that matter, LittleHavana, due to the large volume of Latin American joints on the strip thatincludes my two favorite taco shops in the city.

In this strip mall there area couple of noodle shops, a place that sells Western wear and soccer gear,a Vietnamese coffee house and a host of other places where English ismost certainly not the principle language spoken.Some restaurants around here make me feel like I live in the sticks.But places like this remind me that I live in an actual city, with a plethoraof infl uences beyond the dominant currents of black and white.

The barbecue counter at Van Loi II classifi es the wares as “Chinese BBQ,”a selection of pork — including intestine and stomach, and a pig-ear salad— chicken, beef tripe and duck. And while my friend chooses a roasted porkdish off the lunch menu, I place an order for half a roasted duck.Duck, the Cadillac of waterfowl, lends itself well to the roastingprocess. The meat has a ribbon of fat beneath the skin, promoting crispnessand a golden countenance that cannot be matched even in the mostperfectly fried or evenly rotisseried of chickens.My serving comes out the color of raw honey, with some chewysautéed mushroom, fancily sliced raw vegetables and a cup of duckgravy.

The butchering of the meat into large, bone-in chunks thwartsmy chopstick efforts, so even though I am dining with a companion, Iam forced to go at it with my hands. After the fi rst bite, I become evenless delicate in my approach, tearing into the fl esh with gusto. My lunchpartner understands.Roasting has rendered the layer of fat into the body of the duck itself,suffusing it with glistening goodness. The skin is almost as crispy as achip.

I cut the fattiness of the dish with a peppery, brothy dipping sauceand with big helpings of pickled daikon radish with jalapeños from a jarthat was presented at the beginning of the meal.By the time I’ve reduced the half-duck to a pile of bones on my plate,my lunch companion has to run. What has been for me a serendipitousmeeting has for her been a reason for tardiness.

She shrugs it off anddashes out the door, giving me a moment to fi nish my iced coffee —strong, and laced with thick condensed milk and wonder briefl y if Ishould stick around and take down the other half of that duck.