In all seriousness though, if you've never had a traditional Peking duck before, I suggest you hop on the Red Line right now and make your way up to Argyle Street. There you will find the small storefront of Sun Wah Bar-B-Q with crispy, bronzed ducks hanging behind the window.
In my experience, Peking duck is carefully sliced tableside and served in several courses. The crispy skin is considered to be the actual delicacy and is usually separated from the duck meat. One of the courses always consists of this skin served with a steamed pancake of sorts along with a hoisin-type sauce and shredded carrot and scallion (read: the best “taco” you will ever have).
Shortly after moving to Chicago about a year and a half ago, I buckled down and did some research on a very important question: Where can I get the best Peking duck in this city?
Oddly enough, my research brought me to the Little Vietnam section of town rather than Chinatown. Plenty of restaurants in Chinatown serve Peking duck, but most require an advanced order. This did not help me when I was sitting at work intent upon having a duck feast within an hour or two. Sun Wah, however, has such a turnover that they can just cook their ducks ahead of time and know that people will buy them. I think that you can order ahead if you’d like, but I’ve never run into a problem getting one when I arrive.
Not only is it delicious, it’s an unbelievable bargain at $30 a duck. That’s right – not per person, per duck. Since the duck is served in four courses, you can definitely feed three or four people comfortably. It’s also cheap enough to go with just two and bring home lots of leftovers, which is exactly what I did last night.
After you sit down and order the “Beijing Duck Dinner,” the duck will be wheeled out to the table by a woman who I believe is the daughter of the restaurant owner. She is super nice and does a great job explaining to newcomers how they cook and serve their ducks. She talks about how the ducks that they use are slightly leaner than what is traditional, which I think is just a limitation of being in Illinois and not China. When she carves the meat, she actually slices off the skin with a little bit of the juicy meat attached instead of completely separating the skin and the meat.
She also explains that they serve buns to eat with the duck instead of the traditional steamed pancake because they’re not as messy to eat and much less filling. The buns are similar in texture to a Bao and are shaped like miniature taco shell - delicious and adorable!
After the duck is carved, these buns are brought out with a salad of pickled daikon radish and a side of raw shredded carrot and scallion. Sun Wah also makes a delicious sauce to go with the duck that is similar to a hoisin sauce, but just slightly thinner and lighter tasting. My friend Katie described it well – “I would stick my fist in there to taste this stuff if it weren’t entirely savage.”
To assemble the buns, you just put a little bit of duck skin and meat inside and top with the sauce vegetables. I think you’re actually supposed to eat the pickled daikon and carrot separate from the buns, but I just threw it all on there. It was yummy.
It’s easy to fill up on what I’ve just described, but there are three more courses to go! An enormous bowl of brothy duck soup with egg, scallions, and cilantro is brought out next. For a soup containing visible duck bone, it is surprisingly comforting.
Next arrives the piping hot platter of duck fried rice. I’m not usually one to order fried rice at a Chinese restaurant, but this is no ordinary fried rice. You can tell that this rice was stir-fried immediately before it arrives with the leftover duck that you just watched being carved.
The meal is finished off with some refreshing sorbet. The flavors change depending on the season, but they’re always great. Last night we were given Papaya and Pineapple-Coconut - perfect ending to a perfect meal.
Can’t forget the fortune cookie!
To be fair, I can't say that this is THE best Peking duck in Chicago simply because it’s the only one I've had. However, I know a good thing when I see it…and Sun Wah Bar-B-Q is pretty darn good.