The cuisine of Northern China--Tianjin, Shandong, and Beijing--is shocking to someone who assumes that all Chinese people eat bowls of rice with sauce-laden stir-fry ladled on top. Rice doesn't grow in the northern reaches of China; the climate is more like Chicago than Atlanta. While Shandong food is one of the greatest and most pervasive traditions in Chinese cuisine, there are no Shandong restaurants in Orange County; there isn't much in the way of Tianjin food, either.
It's impossible to think of Beijing-style cuisine without thinking of duck, and fortunately Tri-Village in Irvine serves the famous delicacy. Known as 北京烤鴨 in Chinese (bei jing kao ya), this is a duck that has had air pumped between its skin and its flesh, in order to separate the two. The duck is then dunked in boiling water, drained, rinsed, and glazed with sugar (or millet) syrup. It stands for 24 hours, and is then roasted until the skin turns absolutely perfectly crispy.
At Tri-Village, you need to order two hours in advance; if you want anything special, it would be kinder to give a day's notice--and bring friends. Beijing duck is normally sold by the duck, so don't be surprised at the high price. At Duck House in the San Gabriel Valley, you need only give 1 hour's notice.
Beijing duck is always carved tableside; thin slices of meat, with a bit of unbelievably crunchy, sweet skin that shatters in your mouth. You'll be given vegetables (usually cucumbers and scallions), wheat pancakes known as 春餅 (chun bing) and either hoisin or sweet bean sauce (甜麵醬, tian mian jiang). Note that the duck sauce of East Coast Chinese-American has nothing to do with Beijing duck.
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If all you eat is the meat and skin, though, and maybe a meat-and-bean sprouts stir-fry (very, very common), it's a real waste of a great duck. There's the whole rest of the duck to be eaten. You are usually buying the entire duck; get your money's worth. When you call to reserve your duck, ask if the cooks will make you duck webs cooked with searing hot mustard (芥末鴨掌, jie mo ya zhang), duck bone soup or porridge (鴨骨湯 or 鴨骨粥, ya gu tang or ya gu zhou), duck's tongue in aspic (水晶鴨舌, shui jing ya she--the first two characters mean "crystal" and always refer to aspic), spicy duck wings (香辣鸭翅, xiang la ya chi), liver sausage (膶腸, run chang) or any other speciality they can come up with.
If you don't want to plunge forward on some of the more "interesting" bits of the duck, feel free to ask for the carcass to be wrapped for takeaway. If nothing else, you can make outstanding duck stock with the bones and scraps of meat.
Tri-Village is located at 14121 Jeffrey Rd. in Irvine; (949) 857-8833.