When the owner called me about his restaurant Duke's, I imagined a macho place with stiff martinis, red leather booths and thick, juicy steaks. Turns out Duke's is actually Duc's an Asian equivalent of diner, famous among employees at nearby 3M for chicken chow mein, sweet and sour pork and shrimp fried rice.
The restaurant in Maplewood is small and spotless with an aquarium in front, a few pictures on the walls and Miller Lite in the fridge. Service is fast and friendly. The food's a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese standards — no fish balls, tendon or unrecognizable vegetables here. And while the menu is long, listing endless dishes of beef, chicken, pork and shrimp, it's mostly variations on the same themes (shrimp with broccoli, beef with broccoli, chicken with broccoli, etc.) The difference between this restaurant and others that serve this sort of old-fashioned style food is that Duc's dishes are so much brighter and fresher.
Like the wonton soup, for instance. Most place start with a salty soup base. Here the broth is made form scratch and full of flavor. Pale and clear, it is filled with chicken–stuffed wonton's and flecked with fresh cilantro and slivers of burnt garlic. It's clean, uncomplicated and satisfying on its own, or you can add some Chile paste if you like a little heat. There's also an excellent version of the Singapore noodle soup, hu tieu ga, with slippery rice noodles, tender chicken, bok choy and a side of bean sprouts to toss in. Another good bet is the rice–paper roll, goi cuon, wrapped up with pork, shrimp, rice noodles, lettuce and fresh herbs and dipped into nuoc cham, Vietnam's traditional blend of fish sauce, lime juice, vinegar and Chile. The fried chicken wing, though, were very dry and much too sweet.
Of the entrees, beef with black bean sauce and asparagus is earthy and tasty, as is the shredded pork with carrots and broccoli in a spicy garlic sauce. The Szechuan pork stir–fried with mushrooms, corn, ginger and a dash of hot pepper sauce is first–rate; the fresh ginger really gives it zing. The bun tom xao salad, a tangle of lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, shrimp and rice noodles, makes a refreshing follow-up. And the fried tofu with deep fried potatoes is something I could live on — although it probably wouldn't be for very long.
Duc's doesn't list any desserts on the menu, so if you have a sweet tooth you'll have to settle for the fortune cookie that comes with the bill. Better yet, buy yourself a Snicker's — the classic candy bars are in a box right next to the cash register.