Thirty-two ducks rotate on sturdy metal hooks hanging from the ceiling of two walk-in ovens at Vinh Phat, a tiny Vietnamese barbecue on North Sheridan. Another dozen birds cool on a wire rack, a deep pan underneath them to catch the fat drippings. In a heated glass display case up front, cooled ducks hang by their necks. A prep cook stands behind the counter with cleaver in hand, ready to chop one into a dozen perfectly even pieces, which he'll tuck into a foil to-go container along with a piquant sweet sauce.
"This is [a variation on] Chinese barbecue," says Sang Vong, who owns Vinh Phat with his 22-year-old son Robert, a junior at Wright College. "The Chinese came to Vietnam and brought their cooking style, but we do it with our ingredients," says Vong. "This is more of a Vietnamese style of barbecue. We use different seasoning than the Chinese use."
Vong and his wife came to Chicago in 1978 and settled in Uptown. He was 25 at the time and relieved to get out of the Malaysian refugee camp where they'd spent eight months living in a shack he'd built out of scraps. He worked as an auto mechanic for 11 years. After getting laid off, he went to work at his friend's supermarket, Trung Viet. When the market moved to a bigger space next door, Vong considered renting the vacated storefront to open a restaurant, something he'd always dreamed of. He was swayed after a two-week visit to Orange County, where several of his friends from Vietnam ran barbecued duck shops.
He didn't know anything about cooking or running a food business, but he did realize that a carryout place would probably be easier to manage than a sit-down restaurant. He convinced Lam Bay, one of the Orange County friends, to come to Chicago to teach him the trade. Bay, who had been cooking duck since he left Vietnam in 1980, helped Vong buy the right equipment, set up the kitchen, and taught him proper technique. Then he decided he'd rather stay in Chicago to man the kitchen at Vinh Phat than go back to his job as an assistant cook in California.
Bay doesn't speak English, so Robert translates for him as he explains his cooking method. "At the end of each day, he rubs the ducks with a mix of ginger, garlic powder, five-spice powder, black pepper, salt, and sugar." Bay piles the ducks onto a pan, covers them with plastic wrap, and lets them cure overnight. The next morning he sets two huge woks boiling--one filled with water, the other with a mix of water and the spice rub. He briefly dips each duck into the boiling water, to remove the spices from overnight, then into the spiced water, where he leaves them for a minute or so to absorb the flavor and render some of the fat.
Then he pierces the heads with the point of a sharp metal hook, which he secures to a bar that attaches to a rotating disk on the ceiling of the walk-in oven. The ducks cook at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, until their skin is a glistening mahogany. Some are flattened before they're cooked to allow more fat to drip out, then basted in hoisin sauce for an even darker finish. He calls these Peking duck, although unlike the Chinese version they aren't served with rice flour pancakes and plum sauce but simply with a rich sauce made from pan drippings.
Bay cooks up to 80 birds a day, along with a few sides of pork and an occasional 25-pound baby pig. "We cook baby pigs by special order only," says Robert. "People serve them at special occasions like weddings and anniversaries. They use the head as an offering to the gods." Other animal parts are sold by the pound from a steam table near the entrance: pig intestines in five-spice-powder broth, duck and chicken feet in a duck stock, pig tongue and stomach in pork drippings, and pork loin in a thick, red, sweet barbecue sauce. "This is the food [our customers are] used to eating at home," says Robert.
About a year ago, Vong went back to his homeland to visit and ended up partnering with a few friends in a restaurant venture in Ho Chi Minh City. Vinh Phat gave him the experience and capital he needed. But, despite his investment over there, he has no plans to leave Chicago. "He'd never want to go back and live in Vietnam," says Robert. "We've grown up here and made so many friends that we consider this home."
Vinh Phat is at 4940 N. Sheridan, 773-878-8688.
--Laura Levy Shatkin
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.