It begins with the sidewalk. In Harare, shop owners place big black speakers on the sidewalk and blast Afropop. All of the shops sell the exact same stuff (soup, toothpaste, knitting kits, Afro picks, metal bed frames) at the same price. It is only the beat that distinguishes each business—the better the music, the more customers it attracts.
From the sidewalks in the red-light district of Amsterdam, one can see nearly naked women on display. Only glass separates you from the fantasy. A man sees what he likes, stops, and enters the door next to the display. Because he already knows what she will look like in bed, the only real surprise is in the fucking—will the sex be great?
In the International District, as with the cities in distant China, roasted ducks communicate with the sidewalks. Heat lamps are above them, metal hooks are in them, and they hang next to slabs of pork and fat chickens. Chinese barbecues are the only businesses in Seattle that display their food—greasy glass and lurid glow—for pedestrians. And if one of their birds catches your eye, the only surprise is in the eating.
The window of Kau Kau (656 S King St, 682-4006) is dim and short. It is often crowded with roasted birds and pork. Visions of a dark feast lure you in. Inside, more glass separates the cutting board from the entryway. You order from the person standing at the register, and the man by the cutting board retrieves a duck from the display (half a duck costs $8.99), removes the hook, places the duck on the thick, grease-splattered board, grips it with tongs, and cleavers it into neat pieces that are then packed into a take-out carton. Kau Kau claims it sells the best Chinese barbecue in town, and this is not an empty boast. The focus is on the texture of the meat rather than the flavor of the flesh. There is no drama of perfumes and striking spices; it all comes down to the honest story of the meat. Even the pork (a pound costs $7.99) is simple, soft, and sincere.
To love a roasted duck is to also love the way the Chinese cut their meat. For one, it has a bold rhythm—a steady drumming of metal, meat, and wood. For two, it's a far more democratic method. In the West, we cut according to the animal's anatomy. In the case of a chicken, we separate the wings, the legs, the head, the breast, the thighs, the feet. This cutting leads to a hierarchy—a breast, for example, has more value than a leg. With the Chinese, the anatomy of the bird is almost totally ignored. Every section receives the same swift chop. The breast, neck, legs—chop, chop, chop.
And then there is the music of it all. At the end of the poem "The Thrashing Doves," Jack Kerouac writes: "Tibbet de tibbet the tink tink tink, them Chinese cooks do in the kitchen, jazz." The chopping of ducks (deliciously glazed, oil-rich ducks) is some of the best kitchen jazz in the world. When I visit Kau Kau, I find myself staring at the duck chopper in much the same way a jazz fan stares at a gifted drummer. I also catch the young man at the register staring at my neck. Around my neck is a pair of headphones. I then realize that music is streaming out of them. It is the pounding hiphop beat of "Pony Boy" by Khingz.
"I like that music. Is it local?" asks the young man.
"Yes, it's Khingz—he's from South Seattle."
"Does he have a website or something?" The beat pours out of the tiny speakers, the duck gets chopped, and drumming erupts in Hing Hay Park—30 or so Asian girls are practicing a marching routine beneath the mural of the dragon. I grab a napkin and begin to write Khingz's name.
"No, you do not have to do that. I know its hiphop spelling." We laugh. My duck is packed and handed to me. I leave feeling I have made a new friend.
A good chopper (or a good beat) often means a delicious duck. If there is bad rhythm in the chopping, I get worried about the worth of the bird. At Ocean City Restaurant (609 S Weller St, 623-2333), I notice the chopping is too soft and rather irregular, and sure enough, the duck (half a duck is $12.50) is a little too dry and almost tasteless. (My experiences at this restaurant overall have been likewise uneven.) The good choppers can be heard at King's Barbecue House (518 Sixth Ave S, 622-2828), which is not as exquisite as Kau Kau, but has the honesty of a cook who wants the eater to know the care that was taken in the preparation of the meat (duck and rice is $6.75). Indeed, the skin has no memorable spices; it's plain and satisfying. If one wants a spicy duck, it's found at the busy food court—an ersatz sidewalk—in Uwajimaya (600 Fifth Ave S, 624-6248). The roasted duck chopped there is respectable and fragrant, with an almost crunchy skin (a carton of duck, steamed vegetables, and rice is $9.75). Harbor City (707 S King St, 621-2228) also has ducks that are very meaty, soft, and flavorful (half a duck is $10.20).
There are, however, exceptions to my good beat/meat theory. For example, Fortuna Cafe (711 S King St, 223-5343) has great chopping but very unremarkable ducks (half a bird costs $8.99).
Then there is Hue Ky Mi Gia (1207 S Jackson St, 568-1268). This place, which does not display its roasted meats, sells exceptionally tasty duck: the right texture, uncommonly delicious skin (in a way that hints at a secret), the right amount of greasiness. If you want a great duck (it comes with soup and noodles for $7.66) and can forgo the chopping jazz, this is the place to be. And Hue Ky Mi Gia has an excellent view of a sidewalk, alive with pleasure-seeking people.