Cam Ky BBQ4141 University Ave.City Heights619-285-1855Too much fancy food had me craving something straightforward and simple, and too many nights out made me yearn for a quiet, low-key meal. The edible solution, I decided, would be either noodles or rice, home-cooked and eaten at my kitchen table. I decided to make both.
The onset of this carb-centric desire was no doubt brought on by the impending start of the Chinese New Year festival, which officially begins on Monday, Jan. 26, but I thought I'd kick it off early with a favorite dish: duck noodle soup. As much as I'm an advocate of do-it-yourself, from-scratch cookery, there are some recipes that take about five more hours than I'm willing to invest. Cantonese roast duck is one of them, a labor-intensive process involving blanching, spice-stuffing and air-drying, and those are just the first few steps. Luckily, there are a bunch of Chinese barbecue places in town whose specialty is this bird, along with a variety of other roasted meats.
After a quick consult with a friend who knows good Chinese barbecue, I settled on Cam Ky BBQ on University Avenue in City Heights. I chose it for its location, barely two miles east of North Park, and because of its proximity to a small but well-stocked Asian market called Hoa Hing, where I could pick up the rest of the ingredients for my starch-o-rama. Cam Ky is a Vietnamese version of a Chinese barbecue and noodle shop; the two countries' common border has allowed their food styles to blend. The Vietnamese New Year, called Tet, also starts on the same day as the Chinese holiday.
You can eat in the restaurant—there are a number of noodle soups, including duck, and other stir-fried rice and vegetable dishes on the menu—but I prefer getting things to go and doctoring them up at home. Still, it's worth it to order a fresh-squeezed juice, from peach to green apple, and grab a table while you wait. You might be treated to the same soothing scene that I was, seated between a lady folding won ton dumplings and a group of older Vietnamese men reading to each other from a newspaper.
The roasted ducks are suspended, whole, in a warming box next to a case full of chafing dishes. Asian cultures put great importance on the freshness of ingredients; if you get a fish to cook, it should be live, and poultry is usually served in its entirety, from beak to tail.
A man behind the counter brought down one of the birds and, after a few quick thwacks of his cleaver, handed me a box neatly stacked full of cooked duck slices. Planning ahead a few meals, I also ordered a length of char siu, or barbecue pork loin, red-tinged with a sweet soy glaze and a small piece of roasted pork, which, at its best, is topped with a layer of crispy, crackling skin.
I walked a couple doors down to the market to get pack of fresh egg noodles, as thin as angel hair, and a bunch of cilantro, that love-or-hate herb with which I, for one, am fully smitten. Later, at home, I flavored some homemade chicken stock with a little fish sauce and sugar to approximate the savory but slightly sweetish broth that's used in Vietnamese mi, or noodle soups. I balanced a few duck pieces atop a bundle of egg noodles and a few stalks of blanched Chinese broccoli, garnishing it all with some cilantro and a little sesame oil. Five-spice powder, the Chinese all-purpose seasoning that includes star anise and cloves, perfumed the steam rising from the bowl. And barbecued pork is chopped up for later, when I'll get to flex my cooking muscles again when I fry it with some green onions and rice for my New Year's lunch.