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“It’s very disconcerting to see your food hanging in the window,” announces a friend upon entering Mark’s Duck House. But proprietor Frederick Mark announces sternly that his is a traditional Chinese restaurant—”that’s it.” So its roasted wares, dark pink from the honey-based mixture they’ve been dipped in, dangle inside a glass enclosure visible to anyone who walks by or into the restaurant. Admittedly, the ducks, heads intact and suspended alongside racks of ribs and whole roasted pigs, are a bit discomfiting; compared to the plump and decorated fowl we’ve just had for Thanksgiving, these birds are runts, wrinkly from being dried overnight and then blasted with heat.
Nonetheless, the ducks fly out of Mark’s. Along with the holiday season comes a brief drop in the 11-year-old restaurant’s dine-in business that is partially offset by the increased number of ducks Mark’s sends out the door. For Mark’s non-Asian customers, the ducks are a worthy substitute for the traditional goose or a sweet departure from turkey. In addition, families otherwise prone to baking a ham turn to Mark’s when the spirit drives them to bring home a whole hog.
Mark insists that his creations are a necessity at any celebration, but that the duck in particular is meant for everyday consumption. So Mark’s Duck House never really shuts down. There’s always someone in the kitchen gutting, cleaning, soaking, drying, seasoning, or roasting what arrives from the slaughterhouse daily. It’s hard to say how many of the fowl leave the kitchen per day. “Maybe hundreds,” Mark says, adding that
his Long Island source is “the freshest.”
Molly O’Neill has argued that Peking duck “rests somewhere between the Christmas goose and the Sabbath chicken in cultural significance.” Mark would at least partially agree. After all, he moved his operation to Falls Church from Philadelphia’s Chinatown because his sister told him there was nowhere for the area’s swelling Asian community to get any roast duck. “We’re always busy,” he comments, surveying a crowd of roughly 30 that he says is small but strikes me as large, seeing as it’s 3:15 in the afternoon.
The issue of what qualifies as Peking duck is a more confusing matter. What Mark’s serves is actually Cantonese-style duck, even though many customers confuse it with the common Peking version because both dishes use a similar honey-and-vinegar coating. But Mark’s ducks will stay on your mind (and breath) longer because they’re seasoned from the inside as well, with a paste made from bean sauce, salt, pepper, garlic, ginger, and other Chinese seasonings. And if you want to get technical about it, Mark, who’s from Hong Kong, argues that Peking duck actually originated in Nanking.
He says the dish earned its name only after an ancient king brought the recipe with him when he moved from one city to the other in the middle of his reign.
Mark’s main delicacy is served nearly as many ways as you can cut it. The filets come on a platter with plum sauce and a shredded scallion salad. Wrap the ingredients together in the flour pancakes and it’s a sumptuous appetizer. Order a jumbo or regular-size bird by the quarter or half to see more closely what distinguishes the duck from other fowl: the dark meat, whose texture is consistent no matter how it’s sliced, the relatively thick skin, whose crispness is enhanced by the vinegar in the basting sauce, and the layer of fat between the meat and skin that’s so central to the flavor. Duck also graces some soups, mixed in with noodles, other meats, and/or dumplings, another of the house specialties.
Mark’s kitchen is versatile as well. Tanks of live seafood line the restaurant’s back wall. What’s in them can also be unsettling; there’s always fresh eel on hand, and on one visit I found myself trading stares with a yellow dragon, a fish that looks to be a close relative of E.T. A combination stir fry gives an overview of the available shellfish—clams, scallops, crab—but its oyster sauce is prosaic.
You’re better off ordering what’s in the tanks. By the looks of it, Mark’s moves almost as much seafood as it does duck, and the lobster is particularly stunning. It comes sauteed and reeking of the ginger and scallions that accompany it. We also like the Chilean sea bass. It’s steamed, giving the meat a buttery taste and texture. All of Mark’s dishes, even the stews, are meat-intensive, with few if any vegetables added even as a garnish. After several visits, I learn to order a plate of steamed broccoli greens on the side.
Mark’s doesn’t harbor any grand creative aspirations outside the kitchen. The wallpaper is pure Holiday Inn, some of the tables wobble, and the color photographs of food near the entrance remind me of the eye candy in so many chain restaurants. Mark’s is located just off the highway in a mall that counts a Boston Market, an auto parts store, and a pool hall among its tenants.
But even so, Mark’s retains a distinctly ethnic aura. There are never more than a few non-Asians in the place, and Mark shows me a menu he gives only to his regular customers. “You don’t want that,” he says of the various organs that are part of many of the Chinese-only menu’s dishes. “We have a lot of traditional, old-custom people. The Vietnamese, the Chinese, they need a place to be every day. Not just for special occasions. Every day.”
Mark’s Duck House, 6184-A Arlington Blvd.,
What’ll it be—Lenin or Stalin? At Misha’s Deli, both leaders’ namesakes are served on black Russian bread with eggplant and cheese (I recommend brie). But Lenin’s sandwich is based on a falafel patty, while Stalin’s boasts a vegetable cutlet made from matzo meal. I ask if there’s much difference between the two. “Oh God, yes,” says the man behind the counter. “But you don’t want to get me started.” My advice is to avoid any confusion and look to Tolstoy, whose name is attached to a burly turkey-and-cheese pita animated by just a touch of mushroom-caviar spread. The deli also has an excellent selection of blinis, potato latkas, and root beer.
Misha’s Deli, 210 7th St. S.E. (202) 547-5858.