Wild Side: (Duck) Chin Up at Ken Kee in Chicago's Chinatown
Editor's Note:While we're all familiar with the usual dishes around Chicago like pizza and Italian beef, there's a whole world of adventurous food in Chicago from bugs to offal. Dennis is ready to explore the wild side of the dining scene.
You know, I'm only two posts into Wild Side (this one being my second), and I'm already questioning my foray into the unknown. But hey, if you're going to start eating some of the odds and ends of the food world, you might as go balls deep. Literally. During my recent research into this new subject matter, I uncovered a lead that took me to the Chinatown Mall, to a restaurant that serves egg rolls, sweet and sour chicken, and oh yeah, duck chins.
What is this marvelous place, you ask? If you didn't want to know, I'm going to tell you anyway. This intriguing food is hidden in plain sight—at Ken Kee restaurant. The menu is stocked with the usual kung pao beef, chow mein noodles, and chop suey, but there's a section of the menu labeled "Unique Chinese Food." That's where the fun begins.
Lots of cultures eat pig intestine in different ways. It's not an uncommon food. Some stew it, some grill it, and others deep fry it. Ken Kee serves up deep fried pig intestine ($4.95) with a side of canned pineapple pieces and sweet and sour sauce for dipping. I've previously eaten my fair share of offal, like tripe (stomach), brain, liver, and feet, but I'd never gotten around to intestine.
We had already started munching on some of the other items when the intestines hit the table, and the plate stopped one of my dining companions in his tracks. His eyes got all round, and he said, "Do you guys smell that?" And that's when the smell hit me. "It smells like someone's underwear after a really long day," he said. People often describe pig intestine as having a barnyard smell and flavor. That's putting it nicely. I politely moved the plate of intestines to my side of the table, took a deep breath, and shoved a piece in my mouth.
The texture of fried intestine is interesting in a good way—its exterior is a lot like pork cracklings, and the interior is soft and silky like cooked fat, only without the grease. But that "barnyard" flavor creeps up quickly, and then it hits you. No amount of sweet and sour sauce or pineapple can mask that taste of derriere. Last time, I enjoyed Kermit's legs, and to balance out the situation, I experimented with Miss Piggy. Sorry, Muppets. Kermit wins. Also, I'm doubly sorry for eating your friends.
I've always wanted to try duck tongue (I know, I totally just said that), and Ken Kee serves a platter of duck tongues with Chinese chives ($8.95). They are very small, but you can definitely tell they're tongues, and inside each one is a surprise—a strip of cartilage that runs the entire length of the piece.
The tongue is mostly cartilage (I've included this picture as an example). Its flavor is mildly ducky, and the texture of what little meat there is is soft and a bit fatty. That trademark duck flavor is definitely there, and the accompanying Chinese chives are grassy and not as oniony as you might imagine.
If you're going to go so far and eat duck tongue, you might as well go all the way and order the duck chin in sweet sake sauce ($7.95). I didn't even know ducks had chins. I'm so naive. Duck chins are tough to eat since they are mostly all bone, but they do include the tongue, which is a bonus. There's just not that much meat on them, so dismantling the jaw and chewing on the bits results in a mess. I like to think of it as aggressively making out with a duck, except at the end, you eat its face. Reminds me of high school.
Since the restaurant no longer carried goose intestine (thank God), I opted for the whole fried squab ($12.88). Otherwise known as pigeon. It turns out I'm not a huge fan of street bird—my friends enjoyed it, but its peppery gaminess is too strong for me. Plus, its face was staring back at me while I was chewing on its legs.
Despite my shenanigans, I do highly respect the food I experienced at Ken Kee. It's food born out of necessity, to avoid waste and to honor the animal it came from. Plus, I think out of all the food we had, the strangest things we ate were the crab rangoons ($4.95), because who the hell stuffs wonton wrappers with fake crab meat and cream cheese and then deep fries them? Now that, that's just out of control.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.