Sun Wah (Chicago, IL)

The night before the Chicago Death March, we continued the tradition of going out for dinner and drinks before the March. Our Chicago host, Kevin, is soon leaving Chicago for New York State, and had a number of Chicago institutions have been on his “bucket list” to finally try before he leaves. One of them was Sun Wah.

A long time Chicago institute over 25 years old (although it’s only been in it’s current Uptown location for a few years, having previously been located in a small spot on Argyle Street), Sun Wah is basically your standard Cantonese-style BBQ joint (or in proper parlance, a “Siu mei” place): several different meats (chicken, pork, duck), put on a spit, glazed with a thick marinade and roasted rotisserie-style for hours until fully cooked. The result is a rather pleasant combination of juicy meat (the glaze seals in most of the moisture), deep flavor, and a really crispy and yummy fried skin. They’ve also got an extensive menu of side veggies, soups, cocktails (I opted for their “MSG” cocktail, which in this case stood for “Momma-Slappin’ Giger”, a nice little cocktail loaded to the brim with ginger), rice dishes, and some fairly standard Chinese-American fare. But really, most of the menu is about the BBQ.

Stepping into Sun Wah, it becomes immediately obvious that they’ve expanded. This spot is large. Almost cavernous. Several hundred people can dine here. But it still mostly staffed as if it was a hole in the wall restaurant downtown, with not a whole lot of staff running around doing things. The result is more than a little bit of service. Expect, if you don’t have reservations, for it to take a long time to get seated. Expect also to wait if you do have reservations, you just get to wait in the slightly short “we have reservations” line instead of the longer “no reservations line”.
That said, by the time they left, the place was full, and while I’m sure nobody thought the service was spritely, nobody seemed to be terribly out of sorts or looking like they had waited for ages, so maybe they’ve got the system worked out pretty well. In any case, it was only about 30 minutes before walking in (5 minutes “early”) that we got seated, and handed some menus that appear, on the cover, to be relics from a former era.


I should mention as an aside that Sun Wah gets bonus for their food photography. The menus themselves may be worn (we joked that they’ve been using the same menu covers for their entire 25+ year existence, and I’m not sure that’s really a joke), but the current menu inserts are a rarity for a fairly budget-minded Chinese restuarant, in that the full-color third page menu pictures of various soups, BBQ rice dishes, and such were actually done by someone with some photography talent (usually, it seems that the photos in these sorts of places were done by a colorblind person who left his glasses at home, and is still using old Polaroid photo stock from 1989, with a resulting blurry, washed-out photo that does anything but appetize you)

But after looking at the tantalizing photos, we all had our minds set on what we wanted. Alas, that’s the Peking Duck, which you have to order 24 hours in advance, and we hadn’t. But it wasn’t that hard to find some other delicious looking items on the menu. We all opted for variations on the wonton soup (which turned out to come in a giant bowl for just $4.50), and variations on the BBQed meat with rice combo places (I ended up doing the combo of pork, duck, and chicken).

I started out with the Wonton Noodle Soup with Tendon, which was indeed a substantial bowl of soup, probably enough for 2-3 people. But it was a good wonton soup: the wontons had a flavorful filling, a nice, thick wrapper, and were plentiful throughout the soup. The tendon was several thick slices of nicely simmered and soft tendon. The broth itself was a rich and flavorful broth with a hint of shrimp, but not much salt. Overall, I’d be a rather happy person if most places could serve up a wonton soup this good (the last bowl of Wonton soup I had that I enjoyed this much was at my favorite Chinese place in Minneapolis, Shuang Cheng, where I’m pretty sure the staff still remember me by name and order).

When my BBQ rice plate arrived, it was basically everything I was hoping for. The duck was tender and perfectly cooked, with a nice flavorful and crispy skin. The pork was similarly delicious, with a really pleasant sweet note to it. And the chicken had a solid pepper flavor to it. This and some greens served on a bed of rice for $5.25, and it’s quite frankly a steal as well. I’d almost get this again, but…

Here’s the place, however, where I need to repeat our major tactical gaffe: we weren’t organized enough to reserve a duck. The real specialty of Sun Wah is the Peking Duck, and while I was quite satisfied indeed with both the quality and price of our meal, watching the other various tables dining on their carved-to-order ducks made me realize that Sun Wah has to go on my “must revisit” list.

They bring out the duck with a flourish and carve it table side, serving it up with some delicious-looking buns. They then take the carcass back to the kitchen to make you some fresh duck-fried rice and some Seriously, if you go, get the Peking Duck. I know, since we didn’t. And I’m feelin’ the regret.

In short, you should go. But make reservations in advance. For both your table and the duck.

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