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Restaurant Sat Jan 17 2009
Not long after turning Cincinnati Jamie onto the Asian hot wings of doom during a visit to Pilsen's Take Me Out one tornadic night last summer, he turned around and clued me into Argyle Street's venerable Sun Wah (see here for Facebook group). Super-flavorful, super-cheap Beijing Duck that can feed three people? Ditch that third person and come with me, I'm sold.
The eatery is neither new nor fancy (though they'll be moving to new nearby digs soon.) But it's been a far North Side legend since the 1980s for the authentic way the proprietor Cheng family fries, crisps, and otherwise chops up and sizzles any number of winged, walking, or water-borne creatures. Mostly, they're known for their Chinese barbeque--crispy duck, fatty barbeque pork, soy chicken, and the like. I can vouch for the pork (not to mention the perfectly salted, gossamer-skinned won ton soup.)
But what's really been pulling them in since last summer is the Beijing Duck. Created to mark that city's hosting of the 2008 Olympic Summer Games, this alternative interpretation of the classic Peking Duck has kept me coming back--and back, and back--for five months.
As host and future co-owner Kelly tells it (yes, Cheng, but we regulars don't bother with last name formalities, don't you know), the duck is prepared in a hybrid style to satisfy northern and southern Chinese tastes. That means the bird is salty yet moist. It also means when Sun Wah staff carve it at your table (more than likely, that means Kelly, so you'll probably get the spiel firsthand), you'll be sliced a plate of perfectly crispy skin still attached to a thin, juicy layer of meat.
You're meant to wrap those duck morsels up in the fluffy steamed buns placed before you--easier on the staff than offering thinner, more traditional pancakes--sprinkle on the julienned carrots and green onions from the adjacent plate, smother all in a dollop of duck sauce, and go for it. (Don't forget the yummy pickled carrot and daikon your meant to nosh on between duck sandwiches to clean your palate.)
When you do, expect half the dining room to be watching. The tableside duck carvery always seems to be a great visual treat for the uninitiated and will more than likely elicit a few more than audible sighs of, "I should have ordered that."
While you're making happy work of the duck skin, Kelly and company will make off with the carcass and turn it into your next two courses: authentically gamey duck fried rice and a light winter melon-duck soup. Tureen, really. In fact, expect all the food put in front of you at Sun Wah--whether the Beijing Duck spread or anything else--to be in massive, yet amazingly affordable quantities.
Although you're already full by now, along with the check and a few fortune cookies, you're also going to find a dish of the homemade fruit sorbet of the day placed in front of you. As for that check, as of this writing, it'll be $30. Not per person, folks. Per duck. And that's a newly raised price from 2008's $28 for the whole spread.
If there's two of you and $15 per person doesn't get your attention for a veritable duck feast plus an armload of leftovers for each of you (we ditched that third person for a reason) from one of the city's best family-run Chinese joints, I have one word for you.
1134 West Argyle Street, Chicago
(Red Line 'L' to Argyle, 1/2 block west)