Beijing Duck Is This Restaurant’s Worst-Kept Secret
The “secret” Beijing-duck feast at Sun Wah BBQ might be the most poorly kept secret in town. Despite the fact that the Hong Kong–style traditional Chinese restaurant doesn't list the three-course meal on the menu itself, its website includes a full description of the feast directly beside the menu. Without a trace of irony, it boldly refers to the Chinese-duck smorgasboard as "the off-menu course we're known for.”
My hope to go off-road in the Chicago culinary scene was further shattered when I called days ahead for a reservation only to have the hostess ask, "And would you like the Beijing-duck feast?" So much for feeling like one of the few in-the-know people. It makes sense, though, how word would get out: the concept of the meal is fascinating.
Chinese Duck Prepared Three Ways
In one sitting, you and your fellow diners eat virtually an entire roasted duck. Our duck at Sun Wah BBQ was prepared three ways. For the first course, a server wheeled over a small side table and expertly broke down an entire bird into thin slices of breast meat, wings, and drumsticks. Not a single knife stroke was wasted. The only thing more impressive than the carver’s speed was his silence—he never uttered a word. When he finished, he noiselessly wheeled the leftover pieces back to the kitchen, where they would be used to prepare our next two dishes.
Those first bites were sublime. The tender richness of the meat was made even better by the crispy skin, which crinkled against my tongue and teeth like brittle parchment paper. The pieces with the most skin disappeared almost immediately. After wolfing down several bites, the three of us finally started to use the accompanying condiments. Pillow-soft steamed bao provided the perfect vehicle for transporting pieces of duck from plate to mouth, and the addition of julienned carrot, green onion, and pickled daikon managed to complement the irresistible skin’s textural crunch. The bright freshness of the garnishes also balanced the meat's savory decadence.
Before we could even finish the first course, our server returned with a platter of fried rice mixed with the scraps of meat from the original platter. He also brought us the third course—duck soup brimming with wilted cilantro and roasted bones.
Getting Back to Basics
Both courses were undeniably satisfying, though neither captured the same sense of unbridled hedonism as the first. Once again, nobody provided an in-depth explanation of the dishes or the ingredients. It seemed like the—admittedly amazing—tableside carving was the extent of the meal’s pageantry. Of course, for a meal that's so well explained on the website and that must be ordered days in advance, it makes sense that diners would already know what to expect.
Still, there was much I was surprised by. In this era of rigidly designed tasting menus, Sun Wah BBQ's Beijing-duck feast felt like a prix fixe meal driven by cultural tradition, as opposed to artistic showmanship. The purpose isn't to see a chef’s innovative methods for preparing and presenting duck. Instead, expect a classical, waste-not, want-not approach that respects an ingredient by using it as fully as possible. Even the progression of courses flies in the face of fine-dining conventions (soup after the main meat course? Madness!).
This might not be haute cuisine, but it is undeniably delicious.
The Myth of Eating the Whole Beijing Duck
Yet the Beijing duck feast is a bit more conceptual than I give it credit for. Do we actually eat an entire duck in one sitting? No, and it’s almost assuredly not the same duck (there are the issues of the innards and of the soup stock). However, that small suspension of disbelief is essential to the narrative of the meal—"eat one whole duck over the course of three dishes"—so I was content to play along with the illusion.
Even if it was just symbolic, the three of us did eat most of a duck in one sitting. We watched as a bird progressed from a fully formed, tableside-carved entree into a slow-roasted soup.
I would order it again in a heartbeat. But I think a party of four would be better suited to tackle all three courses without slipping into a duck-induced food coma afterward. For some reason, I don’t think Sun Wah BBQ would mind if one more person learned about its “secret” menu item.