Few are the foods with such power over the imagination that just hearing their names can stop your stream of thoughts and send you off to the internet to look at restaurant menus. They tend to be celebration dishes — whether eaten at a celebration or cause for one. When such a meal comes into mind, or into some friend’s social media feed, you can’t be satisfied until you have it.
Take, for instance, Peking duck. The name alone is mouthwatering. And its scarcity recommends it, too: Very few Dallas-area restaurants serve true Peking duck. Mr. Wok in Plano has the most famous duck service of all, a showy presentation of the whole cooked bird followed by a multicourse extravaganza. It’s best reserved in advance.
In 2018, two new Chinese duck houses opened in metro Dallas. One of them, Fine China, is situated in a showy, professionally designed downtown space, with a focus on Cantonese-style roasted birds and a glittering lineup of young culinary talents. Fine China debuted, it must be said, to mixed press and skeptical reviews.
But the other duck restaurant opened to no press at all. Its name is Little Kaiping, and it’s located in the easternmost stretches of Richardson, near the border with Murphy. Little Kaiping is named for the city less than 50 miles west of Macau that its owners, the Kang family, called home. That region is at the heart of Cantonese cuisine — a type of Chinese food that remains uncommon in North Texas, even as Sichuan food takes Plano by storm and Shanghai-style dumplings pop up around town.
Andrew Brisbin, chef Kang Xu’s son-in-law, told the Observer about the family’s journey from Kaiping to the United States. (Chef Kang’s English is “a little rusty.”)
“This is his first and only restaurant,” Brisbin says. “He wanted to start his own restaurant because he has been cooking for the last 30 years ever since he started working. He learned his trade by working in restaurants back in Kaiping, Guangdong Province. From there he has been refining his skills as an authentic Cantonese chef with specialty in Cantonese BBQ.”
Little Kaiping serves both Cantonese roasted duck and the fabled Peking duck. Cantonese duck is typically served chopped, bone still in; the magic of a boneless platter of Peking duck in particular lies in the combination of tender meat and still-crispy skin.
There are other barbecue specialties on offer at Little Kaiping, including char siu spare ribs, along with salt-baked shredded chicken and hot pots full of glass noodles or mixed vegetables.
Many of the customers, of course, are here for Peking duck. A half order is $18, full order $32, but with the help of a couple of friends and a few side dishes, you’ll find the half order is plenty. Little Kaiping doesn’t showily present the bird and slice it table-side like Mr. Wok does, but, truth be told, most restaurants in China don’t go to those lengths either. Instead, you’ll be regaled with a platter of thinly cut meat, six steamed buns, a bowl of long skinny slices of scallion and a cup of sauce. (Six extra steamed buns cost an additional $3, and that’s a smart addition.)
The duck is very subtly flavored — faint whispers of smoke and sugar add to the delicacy of the meat itself — and it’s not too fatty at all. The skin remains crisp, but not tooth-crackingly brittle. It’s not a flashy presentation, but it’s completely satisfying.
Another favorite here: flat noodles. Our table dug into a platter of beef flat noodles with onions, green bell peppers and a light coating of black bean sauce ($10). Black bean sauce doesn’t make for the prettiest picture, and it may not be the sexiest flavor: gently sweet and a little earthy, without a hint of spice. But the flat noodles themselves are tender and well-made, and the sauce has a comforting quality, which slowly grows more and more compelling. We scraped our forks across the empty plate.
Little Kaiping makes other Cantonese staples with integrity, too. Try the sizzling steak, for which tender beef and onions are poured onto the hot platter table-side ($13). Tuck into a hot pot full of scallops, crab, shrimp and squid ($13). Underneath the seafood, chubby cubes of tofu absorb their flavors, and cabbage steams in the pot’s heat.
Into every Peking duck meal a few vegetables should fall. Little Kaiping makes a pleasing stir-fry of black mushrooms, carrots, bamboo shoots and snow peas ($11). The peas retain all their crisp fresh snap — bite down and listen — and the mushrooms, thick and round, are a delightful pairing. Water spinach is another safe bet, sauteed with plenty of garlic and served in a huge portion ($13).
The steamed dumplings are a fine though not special starter; the menu doesn’t say so, but the filling is chicken and cabbage, and, most pleasingly, the cabbage still retains its crunch even after the dumplings have been steamed ($6.50).
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There’s a small selection of cups of soup available for appetizers, the small sizes $2.50 each. Little Kaiping’s hot and sour soup feels like the result of a dare to see how much black pepper the kitchen could use without burning customers’ tongues — and we don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. The egg drop soup comes with sweetening kernels of yellow corn; by contrast, the wontons in the wonton soup have a habit of falling apart instantly.
The service is unobtrusive but welcoming, and staff are happy to offer their recommendations. Little Kaiping is a real family affair.
“Our family is very small,” Brisbin says. “It’s been a big family effort on both sides to get this restaurant to where it is today.” Today, it’s serving some of the finest Cantonese food and Chinese barbecue in the Dallas area.
Little Kaiping, 4011 E. Renner Road., Suite 128, Richardson. 972-235-6888, littlekaiping.com. Open Tuesday through Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.