Napa Valley: Chinatown Duck Burger at Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen

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[Photographs: Chris Hansen]

Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen

1327 Railroad Ave, St Helena CA 94574 (map); 707-963-1200, cindysbackstreetkitchen.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A more-or-less successful interpretation of Chinese flavors in an intensely meaty, luscious duck burger
Want Fries with That? Included in the price of admission, but the humble spud has seen better days in other kitchens
Price: Chinatown Duck Burger w/french fries, $14.50
Notes: A traditional 1/2-pound beef burger with fries is available for $12.95

Cindy Pawclyn is a busy chef. Ms. Pawclyn, the owner of wildly successful Napa mainstay, Mustards Grill, as well as Go Fish and Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, as well as an author of four cookbooks and a recent contestant on Top Chef Masters, wasn't in the restaurant on my visit. I later learned that Pawclyn, one of the pioneers of wine country cooking, splits her time between her three Napa Valley restaurants, and during my visit, was conducting a photo shoot for her latest cookbook.

However, the Chinatown Duck Burger with shiitake mushroom ketchup has always been present at Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen ever since it opened in St. Helena, California, in 2003.

Duck meat, perhaps the most profoundly meaty of all fowl, makes a fine stand-in for a traditional beef patty in this burger. Just as well, the kitchen makes a conscious effort to keep the grind as coarse as possible, lest one forgets that this burger's constitution is poultry—a technique that makes the burger appreciably meaty, but slightly dry.

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But onwards to more important matters, such as the dubious and presumptuous moniker of a "Chinatown" burger. I learned from the staff that the patty is cut with ingredients that one might find in a typical Chinese recipe—ginger, scallions, hoisin, and soy sauce. Sugar also makes itself known in this burger, as it's the single most dominating flavor behind the meatiness of the duck. But the sweet does well to tame the intensity of the meat, and as an added bonus, the heat of the flattop grill gives the burger a lovely toasty, caramelized exterior. To conclude the Asian augmentation, the patty is painted with well braised shiitake mushrooms, luxuriously earthy with a lingering smokiness. A shock of baby arugula adds color.

The countrified and homey dining room was enjoyable, as was the sun-drenched front patio surrounded by grape tendrils and fellow vinophiles boozing it up on a sunny summer's day. Less enjoyable were the fries that accompanied the duck burger. Sure, they were responsibly seasoned, but they arrived slightly limp and greasy, with a disagreeably mushy interior. They could have been at home in a stuffy old steakhouse, but I'd expect better from Cindy's Backstreet.

I wanted to dismiss the burger as a gimmick. After all, the menu at Cindy's Backstreet is mostly confined to sensible, California fare that emphasizes local and seasonal ingredients—that is, until Pawclyn incongruously slips in a few eyebrow-raising pan-Asian dishes here and there. But the patty blend, had it been a little less sweet, could have passed muster in Chinatown if one were to squeeze them into rounds of thin dumpling skin with a subsequent steaming and a dousing of hot chili oil. And I would have happily slurped this burger, had it been formed into meatballs and plunked into a steaming noodle soup in a Chinatown of Anywhere, USA. In short, it's successful as both a burger, and as a pan-Asian interpretation of one.

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