One of Chicago’s favorite restaurants to feast on Beijing Duck, Sun Wah BBQ, has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation. Sun Wah, the popular Chinese restaurant in Uptown, is one of five recipients of the 2018 America’s Classic award. The honor recognizes restaurants “that have timeless appeal and are cherished for quality food that reflects the character of their community.” More than 100 restaurants have won the award since its inception in 1998.
“This award is recognition and a statement to the world that even ‘foreign’ food can become American classics,” said Sun Wah’s Kelly Cheng. “Hong Kong style barbecue has always been considered ‘lower’ class food because it was eaten mostly by the working classes of Hong Kong.”
The original Sun Wah opened in 1986 as owners Eric and Lynda Cheng brought Hong Kong-style barbecue to Argyle. Their children — Michael, Kelly, and Laura — took over the business and moved the restaurant into a larger space in 2008. A Beard news release trumpets the duck: “People travel from across the city for their famed three-course Beijing Duck Feast (so famous the family doesn’t bother listing it on the menu), carved tableside and served with duck fried rice, and duck soup.”
Despite Chicago’s main Chinatown standing on the city’s South Side, Sun Wah serves as an anchor to the pack of Asian restaurants that have assembled on the North Side near the intersection of Broadway and Argyle. As American-born Chinese (ABC), her generation feels pressure to keep things traditional, to preserve the old ways carried to the New World. The award is validation while many of other restaurants prefer to go modern.
“As a family, we think Sun Wah is a second home for a lot of people, regardless of where they live in the city,” said Cheng, who serves as the restaurant’s GM. “In our neighborhood, we are just one of many great places to eat at. We strive to be the type of comfort food someone wants in any given mood.”
Cheng talked about how it may be difficult to explain what a Beard award is to her family back in Hong Kong: They don’t know what the James Beard Foundation is.
“It’s fun and exhausting explaining to them,” Cheng said. “Our grandparents are in Hong Kong right now and explaining to them will be the most fun but the hardest. Our grandpa will ask us the same question five times before pretending to understand and start all over again.”
Sun Wah is the fourth Chicago restaurant to receive the America’s Classics honor. Previous winners were The Berghoff, Calumet Fisheries, and Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap. Lagomarcino’s in Moline — less than a three-hour drive west of Chicago — is also a recipient.
“Our food is now an American classic because it’s being eaten and enjoyed by all types of people from all walks of life from all over the world,” Cheng said. “That is America. America is full of all types of people from all walks of life from all over the world.”
This year’s Beard awards will be presented on May 7, once again at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. For a full list of this year’s America’s Classics winners, check out Eater National.