Two years ago, I embarked on a magical, fatty/crispy sojourn to Beijing, in search of the real Peking duck. Nearly every great restaurant I visited had their own procedure – be it air hose between skin and meat, large fan for blowing on and drying out the ducks or poaching in hot water for 30 seconds – as well as unique methods for preparing (brush with maltose, sugar, honey?), roasting (over jujube or apricot woods?) and serving (in thin pancakes, with or without garlic sauce and/or plum or hoisin? What about fresh cucumbers and the all-white Chinese scallions?) Your choices in Chicago are far more limited – no one, as far as I know, has a wood-burning oven roasting their ducks out in the dining room. Even though Tony Hu recently opened a Lao Sze Chuan on Michigan Avenue, above the Hugo Boss store, his oven only burns gas; while it certainly looks like the closest thing to Beijing-style, the way the servers are slicing the meat and skin in the dining room is all wrong (although they do offer a small ramekin of sugar as an amuse to dip your crispy skin into, and it’s fantastic). You can still find some decent duck in Chicago; just be sure to call these places ahead, to make sure they hold one for you.
1. Sun Wah BBQ
5039 N Broadway; 773-769-1254
You know they take their duck service seriously at Sun Wah Barbeque in Uptown, just by walking past the front window. In any given week, the restaurant sells more than a thousand roasted ducks. Each one is cleaned first, then filled with dry spices and bean paste and sewed up to seal in those flavors. Hung onto hooks, air is pumped between the skin and meat to help dry out the skin.
“If the skin is not dry, if the skin is not free of moisture when we go to roast it, it doesn’t crisp properly and you end up with this very flabby, mushy skin that is tough to chew,” said Kelly Cheng, who owns the restaurant with her family. “Because our ducks are leaner it is a little bit more difficult than other people to get the duck skin crispier. So we use a vinegar and molasses solution to glaze it and it’s all-natural.”
After they’re poached and dipped, they have to dry out for at least 12 hours. The final stage is roasting in tall, vertical ovens, before being presented tableside. The first course is always sliced duck, with the crispy skin, served along with puffy gua bao buns, sweet hoisin sauce and some pickled daikon and carrot. A second course uses up the thigh and leg meat to make fried rice, while the third course uses the bones to make a hearty soup.
2100 S Archer Ave 2F; 312-326-6888
Luckily, I didn’t need to call ahead to this newcomer in Chinatown, as they had some ducks already barbecued. They presented it tableside, sliced it with skin and meat and offered us the thinnest, most delicate little round pancakes, just as they do in Beijing. This was a two-courser (the second course is a stir-fried combo of duck meat and vegetables served in lettuce cups) but still, absolutely delicious.
2131 South Archer Ave; 312-328-0848
Ground Zero for Jews seeking refuge on Christmas Eve and Day in Chinatown; I’ve always liked the duck service here (up to three courses), but sometimes service can be harried, rather than suave. I think competition in the area is a good thing, and hopefully they’ll raise their game a bit. The soup course here is particularly good; a great finish to a ducky feast.
2168 S Archer Ave; 312-808-1999
Another Chinatown Mall stalwart, the place is usually packed on weekends for dim sum service, but the duck is notable too. This is one of the more elegant spots in the Mall, with a number of private dining rooms upstairs (truly Chinese style dining). Typically a two-course affair, the crispy skin is inconsistent, yet the quality of the breast meat has always been top-notch. Again, unless you speak Mandarin, service is spotty.
108 East Superior Street; 312-573-6695
I know, I know, it’s in The Peninsula Hotel, and a duck here costs as much as it does to get a massage in the spa, but the attention to detail is remarkable, given that it’s in a hotel (I should note, hotel service and food quality, in general, is much higher in Asia). They do a 3-course duck service, including the skin/meat/pancake opener, then a soup, but the final course of braised noodles with shredded meat is particularly notable. If you’re stuck downtown and don’t feel like schlepping to Chinatown, definitely stop in.