The rickshaw driver’s eyes light up. “Hello,” he calls through the night, grinning like a cat with a trapped mouse. “Li Qun, yes?”
“Um ... yeah,” I say, warily. “But we’re OK.”
We’re clearly not OK. We’re in a dark street in a mysterious neighbourhood of the kind that’s definitely not designed with tourists in mind. There are no signs, no street lights; just a couple of even darker alleys leading off to who-knows-where.
Our cab has just disappeared up the road we came down. “I can’t go further,” the driver had said as we paid the bill. Can’t? Or won’t?
Can’t, as it turns out. The place we’re trying to get to is down one of those alleys and there’s no way you’re going to fit an entire taxi in there. Barely a bike. Which leaves us at the mercy of the rickshaw driver, who has pedalled up next to us.
“Li Qun? Come on, I take you. Easy. Come on.”
The choice is fairly clear: spend a few hours wandering around a Beijing hutong getting progressively more lost just to prove we don’t need to pay for help, or cough up a few yuan for a quick rickshaw ride. In weget.
Two left turns later and we’ve arrived, making this, metre for metre, probably the most expensive rickshaw ride in Asia. There’s a sign stuck to the front of the restaurant: “Please don’t hire rickshaw drivers – they are not affiliated with Li Qun restaurant.” Right. That’s a little piece of information we could have used 100metres ago.
Regardless, we’ve arrived. The holy grail awaits inside: Peking duck. The word “iconic” gets thrown around a lot these days – Rolf Harris is iconic, apparently; meat pies are iconic; but Peking duck certainly fits the description. It’s a dish innately tied to the city of its name.
You spend your life eating the Australianised versions of the famous duck but surely nothing compares with tasting it at the source. It’s like eating sushi in Tokyo or a thali in Mumbai or pho in Hanoi or clam chowder in Boston. This is a culture distilled into a plate of food.
Peking duck is reason enough to visit Beijing – forget the Forbidden City, don’t even mention Mao. It’s all about crispy skin, juicy meat, sliced cucumber and hoisin sauce wrapped in a thin pancake.
Opinion is split about where to find the best Peking duck in the Chinese capital. Some say it’s at DaDong, a swish, upmarket joint. Others claim Quanjude. I’d read somewhere of celebrity chef, Kylie Kwong, touting the greatness of Li Qun, so that was justification enough to book a table, book a duck and jump in a cab.
“Unpretentious” doesn’t quite capture Li Qun. “Rundown” might be a better word. Set in a hutong – one of the cramped, traditional Beijing neighbourhoods – it is safe to say the place hasn’t felt the loving touch of a renovator in the past 50years or so. That’s either authentic or unhygienic, depending on your point of view.
A photo of a grinning Boris Yeltsin is at the cramped restaurant entrance and then there are the ducks, a long row of them, crisping slowly over the raging flames of the oven. One of those bad boys has my name on it.
We’re shown to a low table with a plastic tablecloth and order a few beers to kick things off. “I’m just going to the toilet,” my partner says, walking off to a back room.
She returns a few minutes later, looking traumatised. “Don’t. Go. To the toilet.”
Our fellow diners are mostly expats and fellow tourists, by the looks. That rickshaw driver must be doing good business.
It’s tempting to think of this as all being a bit touristy, purposefully slumming it in a hutong for “authentic” Peking duck when we could just as easily be back in the middle of the city in a flash restaurant with usable toilet facilities. But at a place like that you’ve got no chance of persuading yourself that this is something real Beijingers would do on a night out; at least at Li Qun you can take in the leaky roof, the dirty floor and the plastic chairs and pretend you are just having a regular night out with the locals.
The entrees arrive: the duck’s liver, sliced and served plain; the tongue, done in a spicy sauce. Then it’s time for the main event: our entire duck, sliced thinly and served with pancakes and the traditional accompaniments.
The taste? Bah, how could you really know?
There are just so many accompanying factors – the ratty decor, the Yanjing beer, the journey here, the yelling of Chinese chefs from the kitchen, the knowledge of where you are – it’s almost impossible to compare it with its Sydney BBQ King equivalent.
It’s an experience all of its own and it’s one that I, going by the amount of food I’ve shovelled down my throat, clearly don’t want to have come to an end. But, eventually, it has to and I have to roll myself back into the alley. Now, where’s that rickshaw driver gone?