Food writer Mei Chin undertakes a quest to find the best Cantonese BBQ in Dublin, assessing six of the city's favourite spots.
Whether it’s glistening duck, charsiu pork or crunchy siu yok belly dangling on meat hooks in the window, there is nothing healthy about Cantonese BBQ. Cured in salt and spices, slathered in umami sauces and sticky honey, boosted by MSG, it’s also one of life’s fundamental pleasures.
The other day, at great risk to my general well-being, I decided to test six BBQ places in Dublin’s city centre. In each, I got three “mixed meats” which in Dublin is roast duck, charsiu (otherwise known as honey barbecue pork) and siu yok, which is pork belly whose crisp skin is the premise by which the whole is judged. Interestingly, the cost in these six places came out to exactly €27.
I deposited my bounty – leaking maltose and fat – in front of my friends who were finishing up a sherry tasting on the counter of my favourite wine bar. “We’re vultures!” someone exclaimed.
Round one: Charlie’s 4 (8 South Great George’s Street) versus Duck (15 Fade Street)
For many people, Chinese included, Duck on Fade Street is the only Dublin Cantonese barbecue place. Chic and clean, with its pale wood décor and hipster vibe, it has made Cantonese roast meats friendly to Chinese and Westerners alike. It debones your duck for an extra euro. And yet, Duck is like Starbucks. It’s really very good, but after going there for the past few years without question, you wonder if there isn’t a lesser-known establishment who might be doing it better?
There was only room on the bar for two competitors, and it might have been unfair to do Charlie’s together with Duck. Charlie’s was always going to be the outlier, famous for serving the (mostly Irish) over-served with three-in-ones at two AM. I have been a cheerleader of Charlie’s since I moved to George’s Street seven years ago and discovered it had Hainan chicken, aka Malaysian chicken and rice, where the rice is cooked in the steamed chicken juices. Besides, Charlie’s was making charsiu for a long time, in what I call the Dark Days Before Duck. For this reason, Charlie’s is a little secret that I continue to harbour in my heart.
At Charlie's, the charsiu was leathery and a shade too sweet. (It still makes excellent fried rice.) The skin on the pork belly was nice, although the Chinese tasters complained that the pork had a faint odour. (The smell I have heard described as “piggy,” or xing, off. For a nation of people who eat so much pork, the Chinese put a lot of effort – blanching, soaking, rinsing, curing – into scouring the pork taste away.) Bonus? Some of my best roast meat experiences occur after midnight. Charlie’s, which closes at four, is the only place in Dublin where you can do this.
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Once we dove into Duck, the difference was palpable. The Silver Hills duck was decently seasoned, although one friend commented that the meat lacked flavour, but he was also not crazy about Silver Hills from a farming and ethics standpoint. The pork belly was not xing, and while friends say that Duck’s siu yok skin can be hit-or-miss, on this day, it was crisp. The fire engine hue of Duck’s charsiu has always been a bit of a turnoff. Traditionally, the red from charsiu was from fermented tofu, but these days, many heighten it with food colouring. Nevertheless, compared to Charlie’s, it was the perfect balance of salt and sweet, and spurt-in-the mouth juicy.
Charlie’s charsiu tasted like it had been hanging around since the morning. Duck’s meat is good because it’s fresh. Many Chinese are loath to throw anything away – especially something as Cantonese BBQ, and meat not sold might roll over until tomorrow. Duck is the only place in Dublin where the BBQ meat is constantly flying. With a conveyor belt-like speed and precision, the curing meats behind the cashier are carried off to the oven; one freshly roasted meat is hung up in the window as another is taken down and cleaved apart. You want fresh Chinese BBQ in Dublin? Duck is the only place where it's guaranteed.
Round two: Mr. Dinh (101-102 Capel Street) versus Ka-Shing (12A Wicklow Street)
For years, Mr. Dinh at the top of Capel Street has been a proper sit-down restaurant for its mostly Chinese clientele– nothing too flash – but with tablecloths, wine glasses and a full bar. Across the Liffey, Ka-Shing – with its marble tables and chandeliers –plays a similar role. Like Duck, Mr. Dinh has roast meat dangling in the window. Mr. Dinh’s cheong fun, or slippery rice noodles, is the best in this town because it’s garnished with the sauce in which their charsiu steeps.
I preferred Mr. Dinh’s charsiu to that of Duck, even though everyone else disagreed. Opinions were divided about whether the duck and the siu yok were better than Duck. It was Ka-Shing, however, that was the surprise. In the years that I’ve gone to Ka-Shing, I have never ordered the BBQ; its Versailles-Vegas bling is, for me, more banquet than barbecue. One friend, long ago, wondered whether Ka-Shing was ordering its meat from Mr. Dinh. Needless to say, Ka-Shing meats not only tasted distinct from Mr. Dinh, they were remarkable. The charsiu was dense and velvety. The meat of the siu yok was less flavorful than Duck’s, but the skin is this dish’s crowning glory and was the best we had had so far.
Then came Ka-Shing’s duck, and oh what a voluptuous bird it was. As the most exacting taster among us commented, “Once you saw that duck, you knew.” The skin of a roast Cantonese duck is almost as important as the skin of a siu yok, and the Ka-Shing skin was glossy and burnished with a mahogany sheen. The flavour went straight to the bone, the flesh was tender, and the skin broke like glass on our teeth. The person who had previously disparaged Duck’s Silver Hills duck, announced, “This isn’t Silver Hills.” (Actually, it is. I called later to check. The Chinese love their Silver Hills.) “Well,” he countered, “it’s from a different flock. You can tell.”
Round three: Good World (18 South Great George’s Street) versus Oriental Emporium (30-32 Upper Abbey Street)
Oriental Emporium, across from the Jervis Luas, is a bare-boned supermarket defined by its counters. The butcher sells pork chops and chicken breasts, snouts, tripe and claws. The fishmonger has octopus, cockles, lobsters and crabs doing a slow crawl in tanks. The third sells prepared foods and BBQ on hooks. You pay at each counter with cash; usually, Oriental’s staff are friendly but that day, my man had a nasty temper.
At the wine bar where we perch, the staff craves Oriental Market’s siu yok. (It’s on the chef’s commute into work.) The Chinese have a word – su – which refers to the flake and crunch you get from treating food with fat, brittle without ever being greasy. Oriental’s crackling is the soul of su, a cross between a cobweb and a cloud.
“If we got this yesterday, it would be perfect,” someone comments. It tastes, for him, a little old and a trifle xing.
My Irish-Cantonese friends remember going to Good World on Mondays when the rest of the Chinese restaurants in the country were closed. For me, Good World’s siu yok was the best of the bunch, but it might have been because I had held off on the siu yok gorging. (People who had over-indulged on siu yok were turning green. “Remind me,” slurred the person to my right, “Did we like this skin or that skin?”) Good World’s charsiu was, in my opinion, better than Duck, laced with savoury, lush fat. Good World’s duck was slightly dry, the skin lacked shine and crackle, but its gorgeously seasoned meat reminded me of confit at its loveliest. It was sprinkled with delicious deep fried peanuts. Also, I was dehydrated, fatigued, and starting to sweat.
Best duck: Ka-Shing
Best charsiu and siu yok: Good World
Other best siu yok: Oriental Emporium, if it was yesterday
Best overall: Duck
One of my sources was surprised when I raved about the duck in Ka-Shing, saying, “It was nice on Monday, but not so much on Wednesday. “ Perhaps, as this person suggested, Ka-Shing – because it is not a BBQ place – roasts a few times a week, and Thursday, when we went, was a good day.
I love Duck because it is a predictable, well-lubricated machine. The rest of Dublin BBQ is a roulette that depends on the day, the person who’s cooking, and probably weird celestial alignments. 27 euro is not cheap, but not harrowingly expensive, ante in.
In future, expect me to bet on Ka-Shing’s beautiful bird; I hope to be paid off three out of five times. Gambling is a shared passion of Irish and Chinese. In the world of Dublin Cantonese BBQ, isn’t taking a chance simply part of the fun?
Author: Mei Chin
Mei is from New York and Connecticut. She has written for Saveur, Lucky Peach,
New York Times, Irish Times, the Sunday Times, Gourmet, Fiction, Bomb, and is the
recipient of the James Beard MFK Fisher and two IACP Bert Greene awards. She is
currently collaborating with editor and writer Georgia Freedman on a new
magazine, Ampersand: Eating at the Cultural Crossroads. Now based in Dublin, Mei
spends much of her time obsessing about Caesar salads, tacos, and martinis.