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duck it

I’ve long fantasized about eating an elaborate meal in Beijing or Hong Kong. These two cities are the culinary epicenter of east Asia, and I love Chinese and Japanese food with a deep passion. Alas, I don’t forsee anytime in the near future when this could happen, so I’d have to deal with my options here in Chicago.

Chicago has an expansive, diverse Asian population. We live just north of Chinatown and there are pockets of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese immigrants all over the city and suburbs. Sushi restaurants, noodle houses, and barbecue places line the streets of these areas, and the neighborhoods smell of the food and culture that came with these people.

One of our good friends, Amanda, recently moved to California, and recently announced she’d be in the city for a few days to visit. She mentioned wanting to visit a popular Chinese restaurant in Uptown, so she made a reservation, and I went. M joined us after class.

Sun Wah Barbecue is legendary in the city’s ethnic food scene. It may not be the only Asian restaurant at Argyle and Broadway (It sits at the northern edge of the Little Vietnam neighborhood), but it is certainly one of the very best. Their specialty isn’t even on the menu: Beijing Duck.

A dozen ducks hang in the window and since these wonderful birds take time to prepare, your order must go in at the same time as your reservation. When I saw these ducks in the window, I flashed to my Hong Kong fantasies and knew I was in for a good night.

We ordered egg rolls and I asked for a Tiger beer, as did my new friend, Lisa. The egg rolls were among the best I’d ever eaten. Crispy shell, well-cooked vegetables that weren’t mushy, and a balanced flavor. And classic yellow sweet and sour sauce for dipping, not that these needed any sauce.

Two ducks with deep brown roasted skin arrived on cutting boards, and one of the cooks, using a cleaver, disassembled each one, keeping the legs intact, and sliced the meat on the bias, leaving the skin on. Along with the meat, there was a small bowl of plum sauce and a plate of julienned carrots and daikon, and a platter of warm, fluffy sliced bao. (“Bao” is Chinese for bread, and can refer to either a steamed filled dumpling or the bread itself.) The bao, vegetables, sauce, and duck quickly became a sandwich, and it was wonderful. The sweetness of the skin, juicy fattiness of the duck (are you taking notes, Silver Palm?), and perfect fluffiness of the bao made it a wonderful first course.

The cook who carved the initial course took the remaining meat away, and returned with three more courses: duck fried rice, duck soup, and a wonderful dish of noodles (possibly the best Asian noodles I’ve ever had), duck, and vegetables. I began to feel like I was stuck in a pinball machine, bouncing from taste to taste, lost in the fatty flavors that consumed my plate and my palate.

As a final course, our waiter brought us small bowls with a single scoop of raspberry sorbet, which was perfectly sweet and tasted of raspberries, not raspberry concentrate.

Sun Wah has long been a favorite of several well-known chefs in the city, as well as some of our more well-known food critics (ABC 7’s Steve Dolinsky has reviewed the place twice in the past four years), and I see why. It’s always busy, often with dozens of Asian diners (a good sign in this town), and the place is cheap. We were charged not by the person, but by the duck, and each duck is $28. It is authentic, delicious (a word I rarely use, for reasons I don’t quite know), and cheap, and we will be back.

Rating: Food Porn

Sun Wah Barbecue is at 5039 North Broadway in Uptown.



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