Made in Uptown: Sun Wah BBQ

Sun Wah BBQ is the long-standing Uptown Chinese eatery known for its Hong Kong-style BBQ dishes and the “off-menu” Peking duck meal that is second to none in Chicago. Uptown United chatted with Kelly Cheng, one of three siblings who co-own the bustling eatery, about Sun Wah’s storied history and future plans.

Why do business in Uptown? Kelly’s father Eric first opened Sun Wah as a tiny countertop eatery in New York after he couldn’t take time off work while his wife was pregnant with Kelly. The name, translated loosely as “New riches,” represents Eric’s new beginning in America. But high rents spurred him to move to Chicago and, to avoid competition in Chinatown, Eric settled on Uptown’s Argyle Street, reopening Sun Wah in 1987. Kelly was 8 and recalls resenting having to move. The family moved to Skokie but the parents had to work more and – as she got older – Kelly also began spending time here, and has many memories tearing strips of sauce packets.

In 2009, Sun Wah moved from Argyle around the corner to the much-larger Broadway-facing building that was once an auto body shop. Its open layout is ideal for parties big and small, and includes an upstairs event space that can host 100-150 for baby showers, birthdays, and rehearsal dinners.

Today, the eatery is often packed with both regulars and foodies who flock here for the authentic dishes – namely the Beijing Duck Feast, a multi-course experience that is carved table-side and served with steamed buns, duck broth, and fried rice. Sun Wah BBQ sells 1,000 weekly! Plus, the tofu is made fresh by their auxiliary business, Sun Xien Soy Products.

A family business. Kelly uses her MBA to run the business, while her brother Mike oversees the barbecue, and her younger sister Laura is a Kendall College graduate who sources quality ingredients for the restaurant. Kelly’s husband even devised some of Sun Wah’s mixed drinks.

Supporting the community. For Kelly, the Argyle Night Market is an especially meaningful way of engaging with and helping the Argyle community. For her, being at the market is worth the effort because it’s more than just marketing for Sun Wah, it means helping bring people into the area, which helps the entire community. For her, its work worth doing and she feels that, as a business owner, it’s important to actively care about your neighborhood because the benefit is felt by everyone. Plus, for her word of mouth is key and is more important than any physical marketing campaign.

What’s next? Kelly says she’s always tweaking menu by adding items and seasonal dishes. And since walk-in wait times can be over an hour, they’ve begun using a wait list app to manage long lines during their busiest times. Kelly says she often sends walk-ins to walk around Argyle when waits are long. It’s been really successful, keeping customers happy while also taking some pressure off her team when it gets really busy.

So come hungry and bring some friends – the Duck Feast feeds at least four. But order in advance, as it frequently sells out. Sun Wah BBQ is open until 9pm Sun-Wed, until 10pm Fri. & Sat. Closed Thursdays.