Duck Chang’s restaurant, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in Annandale this year, has brought several innovations in Chinese cuisine to the United States.
The restaurant, at 4427 John Marr Drive, uses old recipes that rely on a lot of different spices and herbs, and “99 percent of our food is made on the premises,” says Peter Chang, who took over Duck Chang’s after his father, Man Ming “Duck” Chang, died in 2005 at age 81.
Peter Chang credits his father with developing a process to create delicious Peking Duck, the restaurant’s specialty, in six to eight hours – so you can order it when you arrive and it will be on your table in 10-15 minutes. In China, the traditional process for preparing Peking Duck took two days, and when U.S. restaurants began serving the dish, customers had to order it 24 hours in advance.
For those who haven’t tried Duck Chang’s, you’ll have a chance at the Taste of Annandale, a community celebration on June 13, featuring dozens of local restaurants, live entertainment, and other activities.
A long history
Peter Chang isn’t planning any special events for the restaurant’s 40th anniversary but has asked customers to share their memories in letters and on the restaurant’s Facebook page. Some regular customers have been coming once a month for years, he says, and there are some fourth-generation customers.
Peter is the seventh generation of the Chang family in the restaurant business. Duck Chang, originally from the Shandong province in northern China, was so renowned for his cooking skills, he was appointed the banquet chef for the king of Thailand. That brought fame and wealth – he had butlers and maids – but was willing to give it up when offered a chance to move to the United States by a delegation of Americans who helped him set up the Empress restaurant in Washington, D.C.
The Empress, the only restaurant in the U.S. serving Peking duck, was an overnight success and attracted many VIPs, Peter says. When Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security adviser, was preparing to visit China – paving the way for Nixon’s historic trip – Duck Chang taught him about Chinese cuisine and how to use chopsticks.
When Duck Chang opened on John Marr Drive in Annandale in 1975, the whole family helped out, including Peter, and his brother and sister. Even though they all eventually graduated from college with professional degrees – Peter has a degree in molecular genetics from George Mason University – “we all decided to carry on the torch” in the restaurant business, he says. His sister helps out at Duck Chang’s, and his brother is in charge of the Peking Duck restaurant in Alexandria.
In the 1970s and 80s, Chinese food in the U.S. was pretty limited and bland, with one or two sauces for everything, Peter Chang says. When Duck Chang’s opened, “we tried to be authentic, but people didn’t want food that was too spicy, so we dumbed it down.”
Now American tastes have caught up, and “people appreciate more cutting-edge cuisine and like food that is hotter and spicier with more exotic seasonings,” he says. “Hot chili sauce is no longer a foreign thing.”
“We were the trendsetters, and that is flattering and also frustrating,” Chang says. “If you’re too authentic, you’re going to alienate a lot of people. We try to make sure our recipes cross both aisles – to appeal to both Asians and Americans.” He would like to offer more upscale, innovative fare but doesn’t want to scare away the regulars.
Annandale has also changed over the past 40 years, Chang observes. The population used to be at a higher socioeconomic level, but “it’s come down a couple of notches,” he says. “It’s no longer looked as a prestigious location,” and it’s become just a place to drive through, rather than a destination.
The decline of Annandale has had an impact on Duck Chang’s: There are fewer customers and the restaurant closes earlier, at 10 p.m. Chang has made up for that by focusing on his catering sideline. He caters about 20 events a month, including high-end weddings, parties at the Chinese Embassy, and the Vanity Fair after-party for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Chang says Annandale should become more welcoming for pedestrians and needs more redevelopment, better roads, and a livelier nightlife scene. “Annandale could be and should be a great community,” he says. “It’s strategically located inside the beltway There is such great potential in Annandale.”