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The essentials: Sun Wah BBQ

Upping your Chicago restaurant cred one bite at a time

November 12, 2013|By Michael Nagrant, @MichaelNagrant | For RedEye

Sun Wah BBQ
5039 N. Broadway 773-769-1254

Looks like:
A bustling Hong Kong diner. Lazy susans are stuffed with noodles, dumplings and steaming pots of tea. Live lobsters swim in tanks and whole animals hang in the window. Condensation drips off the glass on the front near the barbecue kitchen. Taxidermied fish (all the Chengs except Kelly are avid fishermen) and hand-built wooden boats hang on the walls.

Smells like:
Star anise, ginger and fry oil

Sounds like: On weekends, the red brick walls reverberate with roaring conversation. It feels a little like the Chinese version of a German beer hall.

"My friends are all drug dealers," deadpanned Kelly Cheng, co-owner of the Chinese restaurant Sun Wah BBQ in Uptown, when I ask her why, after getting an MBA at DePaul, she decided to join the family business. She said many of her peers were pharmacists, doctors and lawyers, but that those friends never had flexibility in their daily lives. They had to plan vacations a year in advance. By working with her family at the restaurant, Kelly had a safety net and the ability to control her own life in a way she never could in corporate America. She added that her dad, Sun Wah's founder Eric Cheng, would tell her that traditional businesses would "suck you in, suck you dry and throw you out. Don't you want more stability?"

Kelly wasn't the only one of her siblings to heed the siren call of carrying on her mother (Lynda) and father's work. All the Cheng kids have different backgrounds. Mike, who oversees the Chinese barbecue, served in the Army for three years. Their sister Laura is a Kendall College graduate who spent some time in gourmet catering and restaurant kitchens, but now works to source high-quality ingredients and ensure consistent great technique at Sun Wah. Only their middle sister Cindy stayed away. Kelly said, "We're all here, I think, in some way for our love of food. But there wasn't an obligation … it certainly wasn't the draw of working with family. Sometimes we want to kill each other, dig a hole and say, 'Bye!'" She added, "More than anything, we saw the hard work of our parents and we didn't want that go to waste."

Their father Eric, who grew up an hour northeast of Hong Kong and learned to cook from his father, was an incredibly hard worker who Kelly said, "was one of those guys you hear about who swam the channel to escape from Mao and didn't get eaten by a shark." When Kelly was born, he opened up a nine-foot counter space in New York (The original Sun Wah), but rent and price competition were so high that he traveled to Chicago looking for a new space. He checked out Chinatown, but didn't like all the competition. He then ate at a restaurant near Argyle Street where he found a crotchety owner who yelled at his staff. After Eric's meal there, he decided immediately to buy a nearby building to open the next incarnation of Sun Wah. When Lynda asked Eric why he was so sure this was the right move, Kelly recalled that her father figured that the owner of the place he just dined at was really rude and his quality was just so-so. Her father was only half as rude and his quality was great—so he knew he'd make money, said Kelly.

Cheng overplayed his family's rudeness. His daughters are a welcoming sister act that makes you feel like you're eating at their family table. Kelly and Laura crack jokes at each other's expense, providing endless entertainment. I asked Laura, the youngest of the Cheng siblings, if they were just as contentious as kids. Laura said, "Well she [Kelly] probably doesn't like that I'm no longer obedient."

Besides the jokes, the Cheng women brought a new sensibility to the business. They tangled with their father and prevailed on cutting the number of tables down so they could focus on improving service. In 2008, they helped introduce a Beijing/Peking duck meal ($37) that easily feeds three people and is second to none. Unlike restaurants that pre-cook ducks and then let them sit around and reheat to order, the Sun Wah ducks are cooked to order and carved tableside. The four-course meal—which includes a crackly-skinned maltose-glazed Culver duck from Indiana brined in garlic and bean paste and seasoned with MSG and a secret family five-spice mixture; pillowy steamed bao buns; sweet anise-flavored hoisin and tangy pickled vegetables; fried rice; duck soup (made from the bones left from the carved duck) and a homemade tofu dessert splashed with ginger syrup and a sprinkle of candied ginger—is one of the best deals in town.

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