Last Saturday night at the House of Wah Sun in North Center, Mark Chiang lingered at the table of a few of the night’s last customers. His wife, Young Ja Kim, had already wheeled over the egg rolls, crab rangoon, and heaping platters of crispy chow fun, cumin lamb, and Sichuan green beans, but Chiang was preoccupied by the imminent relocation of his Cantonese-Mandarin restaurant to a recently shuttered Golden Nugget two miles to the west in Irving Park.
“If can I would stay here,” he said. “I don’t want to go but I take this opportunity. Twenty-one years I been here and it’s finally time.”
Kim was simply ready to call it a night. “Will you leave them alone?” she said as she scooted past. “They came to eat.”
The House of Wah Sun’s original location opened across the street from the Davis Theater in 1947, making it one of the city’s oldest operating Chinese restaurants. But it maintained a low profile over the decades, relative 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 House of Wah Sun’s rep has suffered from confusion with Uptown’s comparatively juvenile Hong Kong-style barbecue specialist, Sun Wah (35 years).
Both names translate into roughly “New Chinese,” but the House of Wah Sun is a neighborhood institution that traffics in a nostalgic style of Chinese American food that hardly feels new, but is executed at a level that surpasses its remaining fellow dinosaurs.
Customers are invariably greeted inside the doors by a giddy dancing wooden Buddha, and in contrast, Kim, whose MO is initially stern but ultimately endearing. There’s a full bar known for its sweet, potent Mai Tais and Zombies in ceramic tiki ware, and a sprawling menu that covers all the classic Chinese American bases and then some.
Chiang says it’s little changed since he bought the place from founder Melvin Gin, a World War II navy vet who served primarily Cantonese dishes at his original carryout spot, and at the current location, which he opened in 1978.
Back then Chiang—who’s 61—was still a kid in Daegu, South Korea, one of thousands of Chinese expats from the northeastern Shandong Province who dominated the nascent restaurant economy there. “For a Chinese born in Korea, they don’t give us opportunity,” says Chiang. “You cannot work in the bank—they’re not gonna hire you. A lot of other fields are really limited. We actually work in the restaurant as no choice.”
At 24, Chiang was working in a 600-seat Mandarin restaurant in Seoul’s Gangnam District when he left for the U.S., where a prep cook job was waiting for him at Yu’s Mandarin in Schaumburg. He didn’t train to become a chef until he lit out for St. Louis, where a friend opened a new place. Three years later he returned to Yu’s, where he began cooking and where he met Kim—and two of his current chefs: his brother-in-law Fung Chin and Ping Du, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Sichuan (the same school Tony Hu attended).
When Chiang bought the House of Wah Sun he inherited Gin’s peanut butter-kissed egg roll recipe, along with the predominantly Cantonese menu, to which he added Mandarin and Sichuan dishes. He opened right after 9/11, and business was slow at first, but they slowly built it. Those egg rolls, 600 to 800 handmade each week, put their two daughters through college (one’s a doctor now, the other a chemical engineer). Wok-toasty almost-caramelized fried rice with fat chunks of pineapple had something to do with it too; as did soup swimming with chubby wontons and thick slices of barbecue pork; swollen egg foo young saucers that might levitate if they weren’t smothered in sheets of thick, glossy gravy; and salt-and-pepper shrimp fried so delicately you can eat the shells. These are some of my favorites anyway—there are nearly 100 items on the menu, including that Sichuan-style cumin lamb, served sizzling atop a bed of fragrant cilantro, a newer addition and a hint of things to come.
Gin, until he passed away six years ago, was also Chiang’s landlord, but for the last 11 years, he’s been on 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 get out. After more than two decades of 13-hour days, he was thinking of retiring in five years or so, but now he had to scramble.
The rent’s 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 almost moved in until he threatened to leave)—and the taxes are lower. The Buddha’s coming with him, and so are his chefs, and he sees a market in Irving Park for some of the iconic dishes he prepped as a young man in Seoul, such as the black bean noodles zha jiang mian, the spicy seafood soup jjamppong, and the sticky sweet hot chicken wings known as gampongi. The new neighborhood has historically been a stronghold for this particular Chinese-Korean hybrid cuisine, but Chef Ping, who went to culinary school in Chengdu, will also introduce more rigorously Sichuan dishes such as whole fish hot pot and the Taiwanese beef noodle soup niu rou mian.
Chiang, who also handles the restaurant’s deliveries in his Prius, is just waiting for his final health department inspection before he can open in the new place at 3234 W. Irving Park.
Kim is coming too, of course. The customers, “they come to see me,” she says.