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Chef Thach Tran is an inventor. At Ace Eat Serve in the Uptown area, where he’s been in charge of the pan-Asian kitchen since 2017, Tran has created several custom tools to make his kitchen tasks easier: custom flat-edged sticks for filling dim sum dumplings; special rolling pins for dumpling dough, cut and sanded down from Home Depot wooden dowels; a ramen egg slicer that uses fishing line to keeps the fudgy yolks intact; and a cutting board specifically built for helping his cooks achieve ultra-thin scallion slices for Ace’s ramen. (Tran also makes XO sauce from scratch, a notoriously labor-intensive task; taste it in Ace’s craveable XO rice pillows dish.) So, really, it’s no surprise that Tran took almost a month to perfect his Peking duck recipe, a Thursday-night-only Ace special Tran has been serving—and selling out of—since this past spring.
It was owner Josh Wolkon who begged Tran to figure out a way to get his impeccable duck onto Ace’s menu. “I grew up eating Peking duck,” Tran says, “and saw it done tableside in Hong Kong and Vietnam. It took me time to learn how [to make it], and I didn’t have the right environment to execute it until now.” To make the four-day process feasible for his kitchen staff, Tran turned it into a once-a-week endeavor, serving just six ducks every Thursday night.
Here’s how the magic occurs: Pekin (not Peking, like the dish) ducks from Long Island come into the restaurant whole and fresh, not frozen. Tran seasons each bird inside and out with a spice paste made from 5-spice, hoisin, soy, salt, sugar, and charred ginger and scallions. Then, as only an inventor and woodworker would, he uses an air compressor to separate the duck skin from the flesh so the former can dry properly, render its fat during cooking, and end up like glass (in a good way).
Next, Tran quickly bastes each bird in a highly-seasoned “spice bath” made with honey, brown sugar, garlic, bay leaves, and more 5-spice, which kills bacteria and tightens and flavors the skin. Then, the ducks dry-age, hanging in Ace’s walk-in cooler for four days, no more and no less. “The cold air pulls moisture out of the ducks so the skin renders well when you cook it,” Tran explains. “The flesh is also curing during this stage, thanks to the sugar and salt in the spice bath.”
Finally, the ducks are roasted in the traditional way: hanging from hooks inside the oven so they brown evenly. A final baste in hot oil crisps up the skin, then the whole birds are loaded onto a trolley, along with house-made accompaniments (mu shu pancakes, sliced scallions and cucumbers, pickled chiles, sesame hoisin, and caramelized-onion-and-apricot jam, Tran’s take on duck sauce). The lucky recipients get to see their gorgeous, burnished duck in all its glory, then Tran carves the bird, explaining how he created the marvelous contrast between shatteringly crispy duck skin and moist, tender meat. It’s up to you to make your own perfect wrap using all of the above elements, so Tran will leave you to it. After all, he’s got tools to invent and dim sum to make and more ducks to order for next week.
If you go: Order your Peking duck ($42) in advance by calling Ace Eat Serve at 303-800-7705. A whole bird with accompaniments feeds two to three people as an entrée, or four to six as an appetizer.