The Over 21 Club: Sun Wah BBQ
Editor's note: The Over 21 Club series features Chicago restaurants that have been around for over 21 years. They must be doing something right, so we'll visit them and see why.
Sun Wah BBQ
I could be wrong, but when people think of Chicago institutions, they tend to think of steakhouses, hot dog joints, and the like. But that's why this series is around—to show that the city can hold its own when it comes to really amazing food of all types. Sun Wah BBQ isn't really a secret, but it has stood the tough test of time for a reason, and that reason is The Peking duck ($37, feeds about three very hungry people).
Don't be confused if you can't find it on the menu. When I sat down, the waiters offered me two tome-like menus, and my girlfriend watched me flip through both of them for ten minutes trying to find that damn duck. I've been told the rest of the food is also very good, but I've never been able to convince myself to order anything else. Anyway, just ask for it.
About ten minutes after we ordered, an oblong silver tray of steamed buns, pickled daikon radish and carrots, slivered green onions and fresh carrots, as well as hoisin sauce, magically appeared on the table. Then one of the servers practically sprinted over with a small folding table that had a whole, crisp, roasted duck on it. I've never gotten food this quickly, even at a fast-casual restaurant. Take a massive punch to the crotch, Applebee's!
The server knew what he was doing. The duck was dismantled in less than three minutes into slices of breast meat, legs, wings, thighs, and skin. I wouldn't want to get into a knife fight with this guy.
The starting spread is glorious.
And of course, the duck is the real star of the show.
When you start a meal of Peking duck, you always go for the skin and breast meat. Load it into the folded steamed wheat bun, which is practically a cross-section of the Pillsbury Doughboy's stomach, put the pickled and fresh vegetables on it, and drizzle it with sweet and salty hoisin sauce—not too much, not too little. Ever taste perfection?
For me, this is what heaven tastes like: Duck loaded with Chinese five-spice blend, roasted until the skin is mahogany in color, salty, and crisp, loaded into a hot puffy bun, pierced with the flavor of pickled and fresh vegetables, and finished with the sweet and umami-laden flavor of hoisin sauce.
I'm obligated to post the pictures of the mild duck soup, flavored with a touch of ginger, leftover duck bones, star anise, cilantro, chunks of Chinese winter melon and the oily, simple duck fried rice that immediately follows the roast duck, but both are almost an afterthought to those buns.
More chunks of duck? Bring it on!
While the current storefront is new as of 2008, Sun Wah BBQ has actually been around since 1987, when it originally opened on Argyle Street in Chicago's dense but relatively small Chinatown neighborhood. The new version of the place is giant, and as far as I know, always straight bumpin' at dinner (that's street talk for "busy"). Come a little early if you don't want to wait long.
When the people at the table next to us were leaving, they stopped to ask us what we were eating. I told them that it was the Peking duck, They nodded, smiled, and left. Then I looked around and saw that nearly half the restaurant was enjoying the same thing.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.