E-mails to Sun Wah BBQ are responded to promptly and signed “quack quack! kelly” – I mention this not only for the humor but also because it is important to know that e-mailing or calling is a good idea since the enormous restaurant fills up quickly and in order to guarantee one of the off-menu “Beijing Duck Feats” a reservation is more or less required. Oh sure they take walk-ins and the menu tops one hundred items, many of which both look and sound delicious, but honestly I just can’t imagine going to Sun Wah and not ordering the duck, a $37 three course prix-fixe (or prixe-fix on their website) easily large enough to feed a group of four, especially after a full night of dining at Alinea et al. and breakfast at Bleeding Heart Bakery and Café.
With reservations secured well in advance our arrival at Sun Wah would occur on a Saturday just after noon and with free parking allocated just down the block our short walk to the restaurant would show us a part of Chicago I’d not yet seen – a largely unpopulated industrial area without much scenery but a steady stream of persons, almost entirely Asian, entering and exiting the space at 5041 North Broadway. Stopping first to snap a picture of the myriad creatures hanging in the window – ducks, squid, pigs, chickens, and a number of fishes all in varying states of curing, roasting, or carving – we next entered the doors to find a long line waiting at the take away counter and greeted by a friendly hostess were quickly led to a table big enough for six (or so it seemed) in the center of the restaurant.
With menus presented and our waiter confirming our order for the duck so he could begin its preparation we would all spend a few moments perusing the additional menu selections and the spacious restaurant absolutely thriving with activity while each commenting that we’d never seen a place quite like Sun Wah; an experienced diner though admittedly not a frequent patron of low-to-mid priced ethic restaurants I can honestly say I’d never visited anywhere in North America before that time where ours and our waiter’s was the only English we heard during the course of the afternoon.
With our waiter seemingly serving at least half the restaurant it would be a short delay before he would return – this time with a large pot of black tea, glasses of water, and ready to field questions and take any additional orders despite his warning that “the duck is very much for three” – a warning we clearly ignored opting for two more plates of the twenty or so that sounded unique, appealing, and shockingly low priced and with black tea poured we sat and took in the scene as plate after plate and bowl after bowl streamed from the kitchen.
Rather expecting our additional courses to arrive first since I really had no idea how long it takes to prepare a proper authentic Peking Duck I was surprised when a mere twenty-five minutes after seating a cart rolled up next to our table and a two plates of steamed bao, pickled daikon radishes, celery, carrots, and hoisin sauce were delivered by our server. Greeted with a smile and “hi” the next five minutes would be a tableside show well worth the price of admission as the young woman in charge carefully cleaned the duck setting the skin on one side of the plate and the meat on the other while discarding the fat and preserving the body of the bird with a great degree of skill. Smiling as she delivered the plate to our table and subsequently returning the cart to the kitchen it was at this point that I first realized our server was absolutely right – even without accounting for the other courses this was a whole lot of food.
With the duck now on the table and each of us tasting the slightly sweet and entirely crispy skin before gathering up the bao and garnishes I can only speak for myself when I say that although not the “best” or most “prestigious” duck I’ve ever tasted this dish instantaneously committed me to putting more ethnic restaurants on my travel agendas in the future. Crunchy and savory, sweet and moist, and all the better with a slathering of the sweet hoisin and some vegetables on a pillow of bao.
With the second duck course being prepared our two additional items would arrive along with bowls, spoons, and more silverware making me suddenly realize that the “table for six” I’d originally seen was barely enough room for three with all this food but all things being equal considering the price and quality of the food I was okay with an overabundance, beginning first with a “small” order of “Mike’s Fried Chicken” that seemed anything but small unless compared directly to the duck and although largely similar in texture to the duck a dish I was glad to experience due to the flavor unique flavor notes of chili and onion permeating the skin along with a slightly funky sweet undertone that I couldn’t quite place.
Moving on to our second bonus dish I decided to order something with Fish Balls as I’d heard great things about those at Sun Wah and on discussion with my dining partners we opted for a bowl of Fish ball and Shrimp dumpling noodle soup, a clear broth teaming with dried seafood flavors and large well cooked pieces of celery, bok choy, and onion plus a handful of ramen style noodles, four large Har Gow, and at least six ping-pong ball sized fish balls teaming with the flavors of what I believe was cod but infinitely smoother, a texture something akin to a hardboiled egg yolk but vastly more delicious.
Working slowly on the duck, soup, and chicken and realizing that we were either leaving leftovers or taking some home for later the second course of our Beijing Duck feast would arrive in a portion nearly twice that of the first with a bowl of duck broth, parsley, and winter-melon containing at least a liter of fluid and a plate of hearty duck fried rice with bits of dark meat, bamboo shoots, plenty of soy, and small chopped scallions that easily topped three cups in cooked size. With both nicely prepared and plenty of duck flavor to be noted I have to say that I felt somewhat bad sending much of the broth back to the kitchen and boxing up nearly 2 cups of the rice simply to save capacity for dinner later but at the same time I hear from my sister that it reheated quite well two days later for lunch en route back to Ohio and that it tasted even better with some of the leftover duck leg mixed in.
With our server returning to the table and chuckling “I told you it was a lot of food” but then complimenting how much soup and duck we’d actually managed to consume he asked if we’d like to box up the one left over leg, 4 bao, rice, and broth but fearing that the broth may spill in the car we opted to take only the solids home and returning with the standard Chinese take-out boxes he additionally presented three small bowls of ginger sorbet and a trio of fortune cookies, the first nearly impossible to cut with a spoon as it was so cold but overall quite tasty and refreshing after a hefty meal and the second informing me that misbehaving is okay while foretelling Nate’s demise and my sister’s continued happiness.
With boxes bagged and the bill paid – a bargain at $65 including tax and tip considering the $120 per duck price at Eleven Madison Park (better than Sun Wah) or the $38 match stick of duck breast at Meadowood (not better than Sun Wah) – we made our way to the door past an ever growing line of patrons picking up their takeout orders and emerged to the street quite full but not “stuffed” and ready to do some walking at the Robie house and myself more ready than ever to begin exploring more of the city’s lesser known ethnic eats on future visits.