Every time I go to a restaurant with my husband, Dan, he cautions me right before we’re about to order. “Don’t go too crazy,” he’ll say. After a dozen years together, he knows that I’m never satisfied ordering just one dish for myself. I want an appetizer or a salad, at least. And two entrees. Probably dessert. I look at menus and I get excited.
As I rattled off my order at Little Duck — this adorable, sunlight-filled U-District restaurant specializing in Northeastern Chinese cuisine — our server quietly interjected, “Um, that’s a lot.”
Actually, I wasn’t even done ordering. I was just taking a breath. While I was waffling over whether to add an order of fried rice with eggs ($7.99), our server cautioned that the dishes at Little Duck are substantial and meant to be shared. So I let our order stand at hot and spicy chicken ($14.99), double cooked pork slices ($16.99), napa cabbage and pork dumplings ($11.99) and two steamed buns ($3). Steamed rice is extra at just $1.75 per bowl, and I ended up going for no rice at all.
Minutes after ordering, I saw a friend pull up on her electric bike outside. It’s funny how small Seattle can feel at times. This friend is also an enthusiastic eater and she and her lunch date snagged seats next to me and mine and we quickly compared notes.
Little Duck opened in January. The space is hooked onto the back of a dry cleaners in the University District, just north of where Eastlake splits into two. Its one-page menu is separated into three sections: appetizers, house specials, and rice and dumplings. There’s also a chalkboard on the wall with specials, although during our visit many of the items listed on the chalkboard were also dishes on the regular menu. There’s a fair variety of vegetable and tofu dishes available, as well as plenty of braised meats and fish.
Our server was incredibly patient with us, answering questions like “what’s hairtail?” (a white fish very popular in Chinese cooking, often braised or deep-fried) and “don’t tell us what’s popular, tell us what’s your favorite?” (the hot and spicy chicken).
Our friends ended up ordering tofu with salted egg yolk ($6.99), small fried whole fish called yellow croakers ($16.99), a taro potato with caramelized brown sugar ($14.99) and a few other dishes.
Our server was right. It was a lot of food. The double-cooked pork slices came out steaming, and the sweet/sour scent of vinegar filled our noses immediately when it was placed on the table. The pork was crisp and crunchy, the vinegar that perfect mix of sweet and sour that makes your cheeks hurt. It was best eaten while blazing hot; as it cooled, it turned a bit too sweet.
The dumplings are boiled and juicy. The wrappers were a bit thicker than I prefer, but had nice chew and a good filling-to-wrapper ratio. As for the hot and spicy chicken, there are warnings on the menu and a verbal warning given by our server that there are bones in this chicken, so it pays to take your time when chomping. Even if there weren’t bones however, the Sichuan peppercorns would probably slow you down. There’s nothing like that cheek-warming tingle that slowly spreads and fills your whole mouth after just one bite. My lunch date tells me in between bites that the U.S. banned the peppercorns from 1968 to 2005, and I’ve never been happier for the end of a food ban. I will say that those spicy, crunchy little morsels are also quite salty, and it was about this moment that I began kicking myself for not ordering even a bowl of rice to have a safe space for my palate to rest.
The steamed buns we ordered were massive and unremarkable. If they would’ve come out when the pork was hot, I could see making a little makeshift bao, but without any super-saucy dishes, they mostly they just sat on our plates.
As for our neighbors, they graciously shared their basket of fried yellow croakers (perfect if you don’t mind eating a tiny whole fish, bones and all, but still enjoyable to pick apart) and tofu with salted egg yolk (a somewhat bland, yet comforting dish that I would eat for breakfast any day).
Little Duck’s dining room is well-lit and filled with cute, tiny touches; miniature duck figurines hidden here and there, a retro-looking robin’s egg blue SMEG refrigerator and old-school desk chairs that make you feel like a kid again.
I’ll be back — and next time I’ll bring more than one lunch date to satisfy my big order dreams.
Chinese; 4100 Roosevelt Way N.E. Unit B (University District), Seattle; 206-695-2564; open 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday to Monday