Mark's Duck House

Asian, Chinese, Seafood
$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Mark's Duck House is Hong Kong's gift to Falls Church, and it is a refuge from all that is sterile and chilly about restaurants these days. A Hong Kong native trained as an architect, Frederick Mark, with his wife, Esther, opened the Duck House in the Eden Shopping Center, on Wilson Boulevard, 15 years ago. In 1995 they relocated to this small storefront in the Willston Center. The restaurant is the best kind of cultural stew. According to Mark, a quarter of the clientele is Chinese, a quarter is Vietnamese, a quarter is other Asian and the rest non-Asian. The specials are written in Chinese, Vietnamese and - usually - English. Mark's has no decor: Furniture is stacked haphazardly at the front, the walls are nearly bare. The theater is in the food and in the customers.

The restaurant pivots around half a dozen circular tables equipped with mammoth Lazy Susans. Smaller rectangular tables line the walls. Often the best way to order at Mark's is simply to point at what the crowd at the next table is eating. If you do point, make sure you point at the duck. This place is not called Mark's Duck House for nothing. It sells 100 ducks on a busy weekend night, and they are noble birds. The Peking duck is roasted to a deep mahogany, its skin crackling-crisp, its meat tender and flavorful. Garnished with scallions, blessed with a bit of plum sauce and wrapped in a pancake, it is as close to heaven as I've ever gotten in a strip mall. If your waiter is in the mood - and be warned, Mark's servers are an impatient bunch - she will dissect the duck at the table for you. (If the restaurant is busy, the kitchen staff will cut it up.) Like most dishes at Mark's, the Peking duck is reasonably priced, though not cheap.

Peking duck, though, is obviously not a Hong Kong specialty. Mark's serves it as a nod to non-Chinese customers. The restaurant's more authentic duck prize is the Cantonese roast duck. It is prepared in roughly the same way, but the cooking melts off less fat and does not crisp the skin. A thick, pearly layer of fat separates the brown skin and the incredibly moist meat. I prefer the Peking duck, but many friends swear by the Cantonese. No matter which duck you order, you will be glazed head-to-toe in duck grease when you finish. You will taste delicious for hours.

The dinner menu boasts some 400 items, including 11 different bean curd dishes, 25 shrimp, 10 conch - everything from eel casserole to shredded fresh-dried squid to lotus root. (Mark's also serves 67 items of dim sum every day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) No creature of land, sea or air is safe from Mark's chefs. They ply customers with pigeon, quail, cuttlefish, jellyfish, fish head and sea cucumber.

Mark's also understands green vegetables. The beans in the string beans with minced pork snap with freshness. Sugar peas accompany many dishes. The various stir-fried greens - Chinese broccoli, watercress, mustard greens - provide a crisp, sharp respite from the heavy meats. And Mark's is a Hong Kong restaurant, so it's not surprising that it makes a great soup. The fragrant broths are packed with greens, egg noodles and any of half a dozen different meats. And a $4.50 bowl is big enough for lunch.

Mark's is delighted to indulge anyone who makes the effort to experiment. Point at the congee with pork blood your neighbor is eating, and you'll soon be spooning up a bowl of your own. Our waitress seemed thrilled when we ordered the spiced duck tongue, and disappointed a few minutes later when she learned that the kitchen had run out of it. We had the Peking duck instead, and it was wonderful. It is this double life that makes Mark's such a treasure: It's a restaurant that can be as comforting as noodle soup, and as thrilling as a whole braised frog.

-- David Plotz