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Jul 8, 2008 08:09 PM

My Tuesday Project: Oakland Chinatown Duck Noodle Soup Roundup

Sometimes I’m too tired to think about what I want for lunch (that’s how I ended up eating over a hundred banh mi in my first year at my current job), so I started this little project to give me direction on Tuesdays. Why Tuesdays? Because Mondays are for pho bo kho (#26 at Pho Hoa Lao), of course.

The original plan was to have duck noodle soup at every place in Chinatown with ducks hanging in the windows. Turns out not every place does it – but most do.

I was actually a little surprised at the amount of variation between bowls, especially with broths (ranging from canned-tasting chicken broth to a stock that tasted exactly like one I’d made at home using roast duck carcasses) and vegetables (no two bowls came with the same vegetable). Some places had only rice noodles, but most either came with a default skinny wheat noodle, or were willing to substitute them for rice noodles (I have a strong preference for wheat noodles with roast duck).

Soup noodles can be inconsistent – a friend of mine was surprised that I liked Ying Kee so much, as he’d had mostly disappointingly flabby-skinned duck there – although I noticed halfway through the Project that he prizes crisp skin and lack of subcutaneous fat, while I don’t mind a bit of fat, but prize tenderness and flavor of meat. The highly regarded New Gold Medal lost points with me for having tough duck, but I only tried one bowl there and it’s very possible that it was an off day.

Gum Wah was the winner - good duck (tender, came off the bone easily, no subcutaneous fat), skinny wheat noodles (excellent springy texture), flavorful broth (tasted like it came from roasted duck carcasses), with a stalk or two of perfectly cooked gai lan.

Ying Kee came in a surprising second (I’d once ordered a roast duck for take out and found it excessively salty) - good duck (tender, came off the bone easily, some subcutaneous fat but skin was non-flabby), slightly soft noodles, rich broth (I thought it was a combo of chicken and duck), bok choy
Note: The noodles and bok choy were a la carte ($1.90 and $.95 respectively), bringing the total cost to over $7 – I wasn’t keeping track, but I think this was the most expensive bowl. However, the portion was one of the largest.

Gum Kuo – wildly inconsistent, even within a single bowl. The first piece of duck I had was the best piece I’ve had out of any bowl to date. Then I had one that was way too salty. Then one that wasn’t salty enough. Then one that was all fat. They were consistently tender, at least. Noodles were good, no veg, fairly rich chicken (and maybe some duck) broth.

New Gold Medal: flavorful but tough duck (some subcutaneous fat), skinny wheat noodles (excellent springy texture), chicken broth, romaine lettuce

Note: I really liked a home-style dish of scrambled egg with bitter melon on rice ordered by one of my friends at New Gold Medal. The squash was barely bitter, super silky, really delicious.

Café 88: strong star anise flavor in the duck, slightly tough meat, no subcutaneous fat. The standard noodle is lai fun (rice noodles the thickness of skinny spaghetti) – on my second trip, I asked for wheat noodles and was given a fairly skimpy portion. They were also a little overcooked. Excellent duck broth, no vegetables. This is the only place that serves the duck on a separate plate from the broth and noodles.

Best Taste – tough duck (with some subcut fat), slightly soft rice noodles, canned tasting chicken broth, cabbage. The least inspiring of the bunch.

Big Dish and Sun Hing both have ducks hanging in the windows but do not offer a noodle soup option.

New Gold Medal
389 8th St, Oakland, CA 94607

Gum Kuo Restaurant
388 9th St, Oakland, CA 94607

Best Taste Restaurant
814 Franklin St, Oakland, CA 94607

Ming Yuen Island Cafe
388 9th St, Oakland, CA 94607

Gum Wah
345 8th St, Oakland, CA 94607

Ying Kee Noodle House
387 9th Street, Oakland, CA

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  1. Wow, nice writeup. I think I've only had duck noodle soup at Gum Wah, maybe once at Gum Kuo. Nice to know Gum Wah is one of the best. It's a literal hole in the wall, but I think I like that about the place. I like the pan fried noodles there as well.

    1. Have you tired Viet Huong (spelling?) on Franklin between 7th and 8th? I've not been there for a while, but in my memory its duck noodle soup was superlative.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Michael Rodriguez

        Vien Huong

        Vien Huong
        712 Franklin St, Oakland, CA 94607

        1. re: Michael Rodriguez

          Ooh! No, I have not. I thought I'd covered every place in Chinatown, but I never go on that block. Thanks - it will go on my list.

          1. re: daveena

            Well, if you're focused on "hanging" roast ducks exclusively, VH is out of the running. I believe its duck specialty is Teochew style poached in master sauce. But still a worthy lunch!

            Vien Huong
            712 Franklin St, Oakland, CA 94607

        2. Thanks for the report! Too hot right now for duck noodles, but great tips for the fall/winter.

          1. Great write-up, thanks!

            1. Nice writeup is right! Do you know if Peony does duck soup as a followup to their Peiking (sp?) duck? I've had soup this way only once at Hunan Restaurant on ECR in Los Altos. After we ordered Peiking duck, they offered soup made from the carcass for an additional $5. Much as I love peiking duck, I liked the soup even more.

              12 Replies
              1. re: samse

                I haven't had Peking Duck at Peony - is it good there?

                I'm trying to remember where else I've had the duck followed by the soup, and I can't remember - it might not have been in the Bay Area. Does anyone know if Great China in Berkeley does it?

                1. re: daveena

                  I had the Peking Duck including soup at King Tsin on Solano a million years ago. Okay, not a million, but close to 30, which is approximately a million in restaurant years.

                  About those wheat noodles... are those the crinkly yellow ones? Because I don't like those, at least, not in soup. I prefer wider noodles, or if thin, then rice noodles.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    They are crinkly, and very skinny. Most are beige - I don't think they have egg - cooked correctly, they have a nice, elastic snap. Maybe "wiry" would be the best descriptor. I've never seen this kind of noodle in a stir-fry - I've only seen them in noodle soups.

                    I like some soups with rice noodles, and some with wheat - for some reason, I strongly prefer wheat in roast duck soups. I think maybe because even the tenderest duck has a bit of a chew, and the ideal duck has a bit of crispness to the skin, so I like the noodle to have some snap to match it texturally. I like rice noodles with softer, stewed toppings. Luckily for you, almost everyone also offers the soup with lai fen (skinny rice noodles).

                  2. re: daveena

                    Great China does a mean steamed whole fish, then wisks away the bones and clinging fish bits and brings back a steaming tureen of flavorful soup.

                    1. re: daveena

                      There's a place in El Cerrito on San Pablo--Little Hong Kong. They serve Peking duck the traditional way, in three courses--skin, meat, then soup. The soup is just wonderful, though it's not duck noodle soup.

                      1. re: Michael Rodriguez

                        How is the duck? I am hesitant to go there because of the people I know who go there regularly.

                        1. re: wally

                          The duck is very good. It lacks the fruitwood flavor of Peking duck prepared in Beijing, but that aside it is very flavorful. The people I know who go there regularly are Shanghainese, not Beijingers. But they know good food.

                          1. re: Michael Rodriguez

                            The people I know who go there are definitely not Chinese at all and are almost anti-chowhounds. Thank you for this.

                      2. re: daveena

                        I've been taken to Peony by my Chinese friends only a few times. I love the way they carved the duck skin at the table with so little meat - as opposed to other places that included more of the meat. The ratio of skin to meat along with the thickness/thinness of the bun really makes a difference to me. They served the meat as a next course with "crepes" and plum sauce. I just wish I had known enough at the time to ask about the soup

                        My Chinese friends in the restaurant biz highly recommend the Peking duck at Great Wall. Sorry, I haven't been able to get there yet and cannot tell you if they serve duck soup there.

                        1. re: samse

                          You mean the Peking Duck at Great CHINA, not Great Wall.
                          Great China is at Kittredge in Berkeley.
                          Great Wall is on College in Oakland (at the Berkeley border) and is semi-vegetarian.

                          1. re: Joel

                            Thanks. I'm always getting those two names mixed up.

                          2. re: samse


                            Great China Restaurant
                            2115 Kittredge St, Berkeley, CA 94704

                            Great Wall
                            6247 College Ave, Oakland, CA 94618