After a 10½ hour sleepless flight from Santiago to JFK my son and I were tired and hungry. But miles of driving south to Virginia laid before us so, we agreed, we’d just grab a bite along the way. Navigating Long Island’s Belt Parkway traffic, we gazed at Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonalds and the other usual suspects beckoning with their familiarity, and almost pulled over more than once. But something was tugging on my subconscious, preventing me from stopping. Because I knew that, just a couple of hours down the New Jersey Turnpike, a slight rerouting could lead us to Philadelphia. And suddenly I had the solution to our hunger pangs; of exactly where to go for a delicious father/son Foodwalkers memory before my kid goes off to college. So, without warning, I veered off the highway at the Pennsylvania exit and pointed our rental toward the City of Brotherly Love.
I am no stranger to Philly, having resided in Center City and its suburbs for years. But living the expat life for so long, my son had little sense of it beyond a specific family-favorite eatery. And there was one place I knew he had not yet experienced — and needed to. Reading Terminal Market is one of the finest indoor fresh and prepared food markets in America and for me one of the top three reasons to live in Philadelphia. Firmly ensconced for generations in its namesake downtown railroad station, Reading Terminal offers the highest quality of local artisan eats, with a wide array of cuisines to enjoy there or cook later at home. Feeling peckish for food from around the world or something local like Americana soul food or meats hand-cured by the Pennsylvania Dutch? This is the place. And in the depths of that vibrant market — crowded between rows and aisles and stalls of profoundly good meats, fish, cheese, bread, desserts, vegetables and even German beer — is a small neon-lit Asian joint called Sang Kee Peking Duck.
Just 8x20, the stall is part takeaway window/part sit-down counter and is so ridiculously understated that most people don’t even notice it as they pass by. My son has heard me on countless occasions wax poetic about this place where I have enjoyed more workday lunches than I can count. But he’s nineteen now and about to head way off to college. The window of opportunity for me to share it with him — to help him taste my words and discover the simple magic of this special place — is rapidly closing. It was time.
Sang Kee’s small menu of eight or so ingredients prepared a few different ways is largely ignored by experienced patrons; they already know what they want. For us, it was one thing: Cantonese Duck & Roasted Pork Platter. It’s a plate of rice topped with duck, pork and bok choi greens steamed with garlic. Drizzle some of the ever-present crispy chili oil and tuck right in. It’s one of the simplest of meals — the “meat and potatoes” of Southern China — variations of which have graced countless Cantonese households forever. And after just one plate you realize that, if need be, you could eat nothing but this and easily live happily ever after.
The first bite of Cantonese roast duck at Sang Kee, hacked into bone-in pieces just like in Hong Kong, is one of those rare flavor moments that one might dream of for years. My son examined its texture then took a bite as I watched, frozen with anticipation. The deep amber skin crunched between his teeth, the meat oozing juices that dribbled over his lips. He chewed it slowly, pensively, then took another bite, and another still. He used his fingers to remove the bones as he ate, setting them on a paper napkin beside his plate because, he could see from the counter-dwellers flanking us, that’s how you do it at Sang Kee. He examined a slice of the char siu roasted pork, nodding silently at the quality of penetration of red sauce into the meat and the juiciness that glistened below. The just-fried rice, accompanied by the fragrant greens, formed a base in his chopsticks for the meat, and he chewed slowly before emitting a brief grunt of satisfaction. It’s rare for a late teen to have no words, yet there he was, looking at me with bright eyes and full mouth. Speechless.
“I know, right?” I mumbled to him through a full mouth of my own.
And so was my first, and perhaps last, shared lunch at Sang Kee with my college-bound first child. His stamp of approval over my much-touted love affair with that simple dish seemed somehow an important validation of our 19-year journey to discover the wonderful world of food. Indeed, he concluded that the little stall’s roast duck was the best he’s ever had. That’s no small praise coming from him — he’s eaten duck in ten countries across four continents.
So as my boy prepares to go so far away to college, it’s good to know that the Foodwalker apple doesn’t fall too far from the Foodwalker tree….
Sang Kee Peking Duck
Reading Terminal Market
51 N 12th St