Last Saturday evening at the House of Wah Sun in North Center, Mark Chiang lingered at the table of some of the last customers of the evening. His wife, Young Ja Kim, had already scoured spring rolls, crab rangoon and plates full of crispy food, cumin lamb and Szechuan green beans, but Chiang was concerned about his Cantonese restaurant’s impending move- Mandarin at a recently closed Golden Nugget two miles west in Irving Park.
“If I can, I would stay here,” he said. “I don’t want to go but I’m taking this opportunity. I’ve been here for twenty-one years and it’s finally time.
Kim was just ready to call it a night. “Do you want to leave them alone? she said walking past. “They came to eat.
The original location of the House of Wah Sun opened across from the Davis Theater in 1947, making it one of the oldest continuously operating Chinese restaurants in the city. But it has maintained a low profile over the decades, compared to the nearby 95-year-old Orange Garden with its once dazzling, now darkened neon sign (now in the possession of a similarly weathered rock star). And perhaps the representative of the House of Wah Sun suffered from confusion with Sun Wah (35).
Both names roughly translate to “new Chinese,” but the House of Wah Sun is a neighborhood institution that deals in a nostalgic style with Chinese-American cuisine that hardly feels new, but is executed to a high standard. which surpasses its other dinosaurs.
Patrons are invariably greeted inside the doors by a giddy dancing wooden Buddha, and in contrast, Kim, whose MO is at first stern but ultimately endearing. There’s a full bar known for its sweet and potent Mai Tais and tiki ceramic Zombies, and a sprawling menu that covers all the classic Chinese-American bases and more.
Chiang says little has changed since he bought the place from founder Melvin Gin, a WWII Navy veteran who served mostly Cantonese dishes at his original take-out and location. current one, which it opened in 1978.
At the time, Chiang – who is 61 – was still a child in Daegu, South Korea, one of thousands of Chinese expats from the northeastern province of Shandong who dominated the country’s burgeoning economy. catering there. “For a Chinese born in Korea, they don’t give us an opportunity,” Chiang said. “You can’t work at the bank, they won’t hire you. Many other areas are really limited. In fact, we work in the restaurant because we have no choice.
At 24, Chiang was working at a 600-seat Mandarin restaurant in Seoul’s Gangnam district when he left for the United States, where a job as a cook-preparator awaited him at Yu’s Mandarin in Schaumburg. He didn’t train to be a chef until he moved to St. Louis, where a friend opened a new restaurant. Three years later, he returns to Yu’s, where he begins to cook and where he meets Kim – and two of his current chefs: his brother-in-law Fung Chin and Ping Du, a graduate of the Sichuan Culinary Institute (the same school that Tony Hu was present).
When Chiang bought the House of Wah Sun, he inherited Gin’s peanut butter spring roll recipe, as well as the predominantly Cantonese menu, to which he added Mandarin and Sichuan dishes. It opened right after 9/11, and business was slow at first, but they slowly built it up. These spring rolls, 600 to 800 handmade each week, enabled their two daughters to go to university (one is now a doctor, the other a chemical engineer). The almost caramelized wok fried rice with large chunks of pineapple also had something to do with it; as is the soup swimming with chubby wontons and thick slices of barbecue pork; puffy egg foo young saucers that could levitate if not smothered in sheets of thick, shiny sauce; and salt-and-pepper shrimp fried so delicately you can eat the shells. These are some of my favorites anyway – there are almost 100 dishes on the menu, including this Sichuan-style cumin lamb, served sizzling on a bed of fragrant cilantro, a more recent addition and a dash of things coming.
Gin, until his death six years ago, was also Chiang’s landlord, but for 11 years he has had a month-to-month lease. Late last year, Gin’s children sold the building to a developer, and Chiang was told he had until the end of 2022 to move out. After more than two decades of 13-hour days, he thought he would retire in about five years, but now he had to make do.
Rent is higher at the old Golden Nugget, but he won’t have to share the parking lot (like he would have with the COVID testing center that nearly moved in until he threatened to leave) – and taxes are lower. The Buddha comes with him, as do his chefs, and he sees a market in Irving Park for some of the iconic dishes he made in his youth in Seoul, such as black bean noodles zha jiang mian, seafood soup spicy jjamppong, and the hot, sticky chicken wings known as gampongi. The new district has historically been a stronghold for this particular Sino-Korean hybrid cuisine, but Chef Ping, who went to culinary school in Chengdu, will also more rigorously introduce Sichuan dishes such as whole fish hot pot and Taiwanese beef noodle soup niu rou mien.
Chiang, who also handles restaurant deliveries in his Prius, is just awaiting his final inspection from the health department before he can open at the new location at 3234 W. Irving Park.
Kim is also coming, of course. Customers, “they come to see me,” she says.