During our Asian cultural and culinary tour of the Argyle Street area in Chicago last fall (click here to see that entry), our guide - Judith Dunbar-Hines - took us to a Chinese barbecue place that specialized in roasted barbecued duck. It was actually a "breakfast" for us at 10:30 at the start of our tour. After meeting up at the corner of N. Broadway and Argyle, we walked down the street to Sun Wah BBQ. (see map)
When we got to Sun Wah BBQ, Judith told us a story of how the founder of the restaurant, Eric Cheng, came from China to the U.S. to open his restaurant. Getting there was a harrowing experience. Cheng grew up in southeastern China near Hong Kong and as a student he was sent to work on a collective farm. Fearing that he would be sentenced to working on the farm the rest of his life, Cheng and a friend decided to make a run for the freedom of Hong Kong and beyond.
The two set out on a journey that promised them freedom at the end. However, the two came to a mountainous region. Over the mountains was Hong Kong. Or they could go around the mountain, but it would mean a long swim through a shark-infested channel. It was there where Cheng and his friend split up - the friend went up the mountain while Cheng took off toward the channel to swim. It took him 8 hours of being in the water - sometimes clinging onto a discarded tire - before he made it to Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, Cheng worked in some restaurants, cooking many foods that he was taught to make by his father. It was in Hong Kong when he started to learn the art of Chinese barbecued duck. He ended up marrying a Hong Kong girl, Lynda, and his biggest hope was to eventually move to the U.S. to have his own restaurant there.
In the mid-70's, the Cheng's moved to New York City and Eric found work in a Chinese restaurant. When Lynda gave birth to the couple's first child (a daughter, Kelly), Cheng asked his boss for time off to help his wife. When the boss refused, Cheng quit on the spot.
Cheng eventually did open his own restaurant and named it "Sun Wah", which means "New China" in Mandarin. It was a small space - only nine feet wide - but to Cheng it was a huge space for him. After a few years in business at this location, the landlord tried to raise his rent. Knowing that he couldn't sustain his business by raising prices for such a small space, he decided to look elsewhere to put a new restaurant.
Elsewhere was Chicago. He knew people in Chicago and he took his family - now with three kids - to the Windy City to start a new life. Lynda was pregnant with her fourth child and Eric knew he needed to get some income going until he was able to start his restaurant.
He walked into a Chinese restaurant in the Argyle neighborhood of Chicago and told someone that he was a barbecue master and he was looking for a job. The person called for the owner to come out from the back and when he did, Eric couldn't believe his eyes. It was his friend - the same guy with whom he ran away from the collective farm years before, and who went up the mountain while Eric went around the mountain and swam to freedom. It was an unbelievable reunion.
With the help of the Asian American Business Association, Cheng was able to finally open his Sun Wah BBQ on Argyle Street in 1987. It was much larger than his place in New York City - about 1500 square feet. But the restaurant immediately became popular with all different types of people for his barbecued entrees, especially the barbecued duck.
In 2009, an old auto repair shop around the corner on Broadway became available and the Cheng's jumped on the chance to grow their business. Eric Cheng was in his late 50's and three of his children - Kelly, Mike (fresh out of a 3-year stint in the U.S. Army), and Laura (who took culinary classes before joining the restaurant) - were now involved in the business. Only Cindy Cheng, who is a marketing executive, was not involved in the business. They moved to their present space on N. Broadway in October of 2009 giving the family nearly three times the space they had at their old Argyle Street location.
Today, Eric and Lynda Cheng are effectively retired from the business. Kelly - being the oldest child - is the de facto "face" of the restaurant, Mike is learning to become a Chinese barbecue master with help from his father, and Laura is the one who runs the kitchen. I understand the family arguments in the kitchen between siblings can be highly entertaining to the staff and patrons alike.
Along with Cindy's good friend from Indianapolis, Pam, and her husband, Jay, we got into Sun Wah BBQ around 10:45 a.m. Jay and Pam are much more in-tune with authentic Asian cuisine, we were not. That's one of the big reasons why we wanted to take the Argyle tour with Judith. The five of us took a seat in the main dining area. I understand there is an upstairs part to Sun Wah where they hold private dinners and receptions.
Judith didn't even bother with a menu. She had pre-ordered the food for us, knowing exactly what to get. This flustered our server who was out of sorts with the procedure. Judith explained to us that we were there a little early and the two Cheng sisters - Kelly and Laura - weren't there to handle the order. But once the waiter figured it out, everything was fine.
There is a lot to choose on the menu if we had gone in that direction. They had pork, chicken and duck barbecue specialties. You could get them plain or over rice. They also had traditional Hong Kong-style lo mein on the menu, as well as beef, pork, and chicken entrees. They also had an abundance of seafood entrees including Chilean sea bass, steamed white fish, sweet & sour shrimp, a blue crabs in a black bean sauce.
Mike Cheng came up with something that is one of the more popular items at Sun Wah - Mike's Chicken - which consists of a roasted chicken with a combination of spices and a honey-glaze sauce, then fried until the skin is a deep brown color. And they're also famous for the table-side carved Beijing duck dinners at Sun Wah. They estimate on weekends that they serve a Beijing duck about once every five minutes.
The most interesting thing about Mike's Chicken or the Beijing duck at Sun Wah BBQ - they aren't even on the menu. And you have to make plans well in advance to get Mike's Chicken, usually when you make a reservation for dinner.
They do a thriving "to-go" business at Sun Wah BBQ. Duck, pork and chicken meat by the pound is available. The carry-out menu offers many of the same things that people can have in the restaurant. Already at 10:45 in the morning there were people coming in to get barbecued duck.
There are two kitchens at Sun Wah BBQ. The back kitchen is full of woks, ovens and stoves, while the front kitchen is where they smoke and cure their meats. This is the kind of place where they hang the ducks in the front window after they have been barbecued - head, neck and all. It's quite the process to barbecue the ducks. After the internal organs have been removed and the duck has been seasoned, the lower opening of the duck gets sewn up to keep the juices from escaping. The duck is dipped into a mixture of boiling water, vinegar and more seasonings. The duck then gets hung for several hours in a well-ventaliated area before it's hung in a smoker for several more hours. Once the duck is finished, the lower opening is cut open and the dark brown-skinned duck is hung in the window up front on display until it's served.
Chinese-style barbecued duck is prepared from whole ducks in which the neck and head are left intact. The internal organs of the duck are removed and the lower opening is sewed or pinned closed to hold in the juices and seasoning. Air is pumped underneath the duck‟s skin to separate the skin and flesh, allowing the fat to render out during roasting. The duck is seasoned and then dipped in or basted with a boiling water mixture containing vinegar and other ingredients. The duck is hung to dry for several hours in a well ventilated space or in front of electric fans. The whole duck is then roasted suspended in an oven until the skin is golden brown and crispy. Once the duck is finished roasting, bungs or pins are removed from the lower opening of the duck and the final product is hung on display until served.
The first thing we got was some seafood congee. Judith explained to us that food doesn't get wasted in Asia. "There's no such thing as leftovers," she said. "They simply recycle any additional food from the previous evening into breakfast the next day." Congee is basically a porridge that is made with any combination of things - oats, cornmeal, buckwheat or rice - then foods from the previous evening are added to the broth along with chopped onions, ginger, salt and some good ol' Monosodium Glutamate - or MSG. (I usually don't like MSG on my Chinese food and ask - when I can - that my dish is made without it.)
The porridge looks creamy, but then Judith told us something that I didn't know - most Asians are lactose intolerant. Their diet makes it so they can't process dairy items. So the cooking process for the porridge - or "jook" as it's known in China - is somewhat of a painstaking procedure. Sun Wah BBQ's congee recipe is one that is followed to the letter by the Cheng siblings. Eric Cheng impressed upon his children the importance of how the rice is cooked and how to properly make the porridge. Sun Wah gently simmers the "jook" for three hours and only three hours before they deem it ready to serve.
From there you can add whatever to the porridge. Judith had ordered up the seafood congee for us - filets of white fish chopped and added to the porridge. The fish was fresh and the overall taste was very good. The rice was almost fluffy in its consistency. One of the more popular congee's at Sun Wah BBQ is the pork and egg congee. The pork is smoked (they smoke whole hogs at Sun Wah) and the egg they used in the congee is preserved - cured with smoked ash. I understand the combination of the fresh smoked pork and the cured egg in the congee is an unbelievable taste sensation.
The other thing that I was introduced to is Hoisin sauce. Now, I've seen Hoisin sauce on the table at many Chinese or Thai restaurants in the past, but I've never had it before. At Sun Wah BBQ, Laura and Kelly Cheng make their own. "It's out of this world," Judith described to us before we put some into the seafood congee. Jay was very familiar with hoisin sauce and he said that he'd never had hoisin so good before. I tried it and - to me - it was a combination of the thick, soy/teriyaki taste with a hint of garlic in it and kind of sweet at the same time. I instantly liked it and wondered out loud why I had never tried hoisin sauce before.
From there, we got one of their roasted duck breasts cut into strips. They came with fresh shredded carrots, pickled radish strips and steamed buns - also known as gwa bao. (The waiter, when we first got there, was thoroughly confused when Judith asked for five of the buns. But, as I said, once he figured out what she was trying to do for us, he knew exactly what to bring.)
Judith showed us how to split open the bun, take a slice of the roasted duck breast and top it off with the pickled veggie strips. It was absolutely heavenly. The duck was moist and tender and - OH! - so flavorful with the combination of spices on the skin of the duck. I'm usually not big on duck, but this was fantastic. The soft steamed bun was pliable and chewy and held together very well with the duck, the shredded carrots and the pickled radish strips. Jay put a little of the housemade Hoisin sauce on his and I followed suit. It made the taste even better. I didn't know how this small meal could have been topped.
We had to continue on to other stops of our Asian cultural and culinary tour, and I immediately told my wife that I wanted to go back to Sun Wah BBQ at some other time. There were many interesting things on the menu that would make me want to go back at some time. This thoroughly authentic Chinese food, as in "artisan" Chinese cuisine. I can very easily see why you would need a reservation to the place - especially on weekends. The seafood congee and the roasted duck in the steam buns were just heavenly. But they have so many interesting items on the menu that you could probably go 20 times and not have the same thing once. Once again, our guide turned us onto a phenomenal restaurant that we would have had no idea was this good. Words alone can't express how much we enjoyed our first visit to Sun Wah BBQ. It definitely won't be our last.