The neon duck leaves little doubt what to order inside Jean Chen’s Spartan San Gabriel café, where décor’s limited to white walls punctuated with a red checkerboard pattern. Since 2002, she’s been producing Nanjing style salted duck, a specialty that’s famous near Shanghai but near impossible to find Stateside. As a result, when homesick Chinese-Americans visit Los Angeles, they stop by Nanjing Kitchen and pick up a duck for the road. This request is so common that Jean now offers vacuum-packing in back.
Most of the time, tiny Nanjing Kitchen is a one-woman operation, with Jean taking orders, cooking dishes AND ringing up diners at the register. To maintain this delicate balance, Jean offers a limited menu, plus an array of cold plates that diners can just pluck from a double-wide, glass-fronted fridge. At lunchtime and at night, she receives help from her affable husband John, who runs a nearby insurance agency. When I spoke to John after my third straight triumph at Nanjing Kitchen, he made it clear that the restaurant is entirely his wife’s, and he’s just there to help her. Jean decided to do something different after their youngest child went away to college.
Jean and John are both from Nanjing. John used to teach language and literature at Nanjing University. Now former students who live as far away as Europe stop by to say hi and to taste his wife’s duck.
People who prefer particular parts can expect to find duck neck, head, feet, wings, thigh & leg, breast, liver, tongue and gizzard. If you prefer alternate poultry, the fridge also holds salted turkey wings and legs. Plastic-wrapped duck is supposed to be served cold. Just grab a Styrofoam plate from the fridge and chow down.
Other noodle dishes are available with toppings like beef shank or ground pork with green beans. Cold noodles with shredded vegetables or sesame sauce are available in warmer months, debuting in late April or early May. On another visit, I enjoyed cold sesame noodles topped with turkey meat slivers, cucumber, and a soy sauce-marinated hard-boiled egg.
Jean closes Nanjing Kitchen for three weeks every January so she and John can return to Nanjing and visit her parents. Jean’s father is 94 and her mother is 89. I asked John if salted duck is the key to long life. He laughed and said, “Somebody should do a study.” If there’s ever a study, sign me up as a test subject.