Molly Lu was desperate for a taste of home. For more than a decade, she's lived in Miami with her Cuban husband, Miguel Astorquiza, longing for the roast duck and crispy pork belly she grew up with in Jiangmen just outside of Macau.
"My dad has three sisters and two brothers, and all of them own Cantonese barbecue restaurants," the petite customs broker says. She and friends would often stop at one of her aunt's restaurants for a bite of duck leg or a bit of pork on the way home from school.
The glistening birds and bright-red strands of char siu pork are often reserved for special occasions and large family gatherings. The blistered slabs of pork belly are commonly used as offerings in Buddhist ceremonies, Lu says.
But for her, Cantonese barbecue was a way of life.
"The taste is something very special, and it was a shock to live without it," she says.
For years she begged her father, Guoqiang Lu, to open a place in Miami. And for years the retired contractor, now 68 with shallow wrinkles, large eyes, and a wide smile, resisted. But last year, before opening King Duck in West Miami-Dade, he relented and — along with the restaurant's chef, Jay Feng, a former busboy at Tropical Chinese — traveled back to China to learn the art of Cantonese barbecue.
The pair spent three months in Zhuhai at Lu's uncle's restaurant, a supplier of barbecue to hotels and eateries in nearby Macau, learning the trade.
"When you're roasting it, you have to always be monitoring the fire and heat, keeping them consistent," Guoqiang says. It's key when preparing the mostly takeaway restaurant's signature pipa duck. Traditionally, Cantonese roast ducks are filled with a combination of crushed garlic and ginger with a pungent blend of oyster, soy, and hoisin sauces laced with star anise. The bird is then stitched closed, pumped with air, and roasted in a vertical grill until its skin turns crisp and amber-hued.
Pipa duck, on the other hand, is shaped and named for a traditional Chinese instrument similar to a lute. Essentially, the bird is spatchcocked, or split open. The result, Lu says, is much crisper than a traditional roast duck and with less fat because it renders out while cooking.
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At King Duck, alongside the roast duck ($12.50 half, $22.95 whole) and pipa ($12 half, $23.50 whole) is the bright-red roast pork shoulder ($8.95 per pound) you can eat straight or perhaps shuttle home to chop up and stuff into yeasted buns to make char siu bao. Soy-sauce-marinated chicken ($10.95 half, $20.50 whole) brings an umami-laced bird with sweet-salty skin, while the white cut chicken ($10.95 half, $20.50 whole) is prepared by boiling the whole fowl in a delicate broth with ginger and scallion.
King Duck opened only a couple of months ago, and Guoqiang and Jay are still getting their bearings as to how the dishes should be best seasoned. In China, they say, customers tend to prefer subtler tastes. When they began testing dishes and barbecue on friends and family here, they found the mild undertones of aromatics and delicate use of soy were perceived as bland.
"We’re doing this from zero. We're building up a customer base, and it’s going to take more time," Lu says. "The menu, for now, is going to stay simple. We want to do one thing and do it well: barbecue."
King Duck. 10340 W. Flagler St., Miami; 786-803-8108. Daily 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.