by LEN LEAR
When Michael Chow, now 59, arrived in Philadelphia in the mid-1970s from Hong Kong, his English skills were so poor that he was not able to get a job as an electrical engineer, although that’s what he had done in the old country. So Michael did what so many other professionals from Asia have done when they came to America — get a below-minimum wage job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. And like so many other Asian immigrants before and after him, Michael worked in several local restaurants before opening his own restaurant in 1980, and he studied cooking with all of the diligence and dedication that he had previous devoted to engineering.
The restaurant, Sang Kee, was in a tiny rented shop at 238 N. 9th St. (at Vine) with just 20 seats in Chinatown. Before long, though, Sang Kee was packed every night with customers raving in particular about Chow’s delicate dumplings, noodle dishes and Peking duck. In fact, over the last 31 years Chow insists he has served over 200,000 orders of Peking duck, which he spent years perfecting.
(In Chinese culture, the middle name is treated like an American last name, so an entire family has the same middle name. Michael’s middle name is Sang, as well as every member of his family, and Kee means “your business.” Thus, a direct translation of Sang Kee means “Michael’s business” or “Michael’s restaurant.”)
“There is an intricate way of cleaning the Peking ducks,” Michael explained. “Then you prepare the skin for drying and put the ducks on a special hangar for several hours. The duck’s cavity is filled up with special sauces and spices and sewn up. Then the cooking process begins in a large oven. The ducks are still on the hangers, and they are cooked at high heat until very brown and crisp. For almost 600 years, chefs had been preparing ducks for the Emperors of China in what is now called Beijing (previously Peking), the modern capital of China. This dish is celebrated throughout the world as a Chinese culinary masterpiece when it is prepared and served correctly.”
You might say that the thousands of Peking ducks sold by Chow helped him to purchase the building he was in as well as the one next door, enabling him to expand the Sang Kee Peking Duck House from a mere 20 seats to 200 seats. And over the years Chow has mushroomed far beyond Chinatown, opening the Sang Kee take-out operation in the Reading Terminal Market, Sang Kee Noodle House in University City, Peking Noodle House in Old City, Sang Kee Corporate Catering, The Noodle Bar in Parx Casino and Sang Kee Asian Bistro in Wynnewood, which routinely has customers gladly waiting an hour for a table, even on weeknights. (The Peking ducks are all prepared at the original location and delivered daily to the other venues.)
The original Sang Kee Peking Duck House has won numerous awards such as “The Best of Citysearch,” “AOL Cityguide City’s Best,” “City Paper Readers’ Choice,” “Philadelphia Magazine’s Best of Philly” and “Top-100 Chinese Restaurant in USA” (out of about 40,000 Chinese restaurants) from a nationwide Chinese restaurant trade publication called Chinese Restaurant News.
Just a few weeks ago (August 12), yet another Sang Kee, this one called Sangkee (it is now being spelled as just one word) Noodle Bowl, an upscale property with 120 seats, a liquor license and unlimited parking, opened in the Edgemont Shopping Center, 4755 West Chester Pike (Route 3) in Newtown Square. This one is different from all the others, though, because it is not owned by Michael Chow but rather by another American Dream restaurateur, Win Somboonsong, who also owns Thai Pepper in Ardmore, Mikado in Ardmore, Teikoku in Newtown Square, Azie in Media, Azie on Main and Mixx in Villanova.
“My wife, Sutida, and I have loved Sang Kee since we were college students in the late ‘80s,” explained Win, 46, a native of Thailand. “Earlier this year we had lunch at Sang Kee Noodle House and ran into Michael. We talked about our children, business, the economy and how Sang Kee serves great comfort food. That conversation led to our relationship with Michael Chow and is how the new Sang Kee Noodle Bowl began … Michael is not an owner, but we pay him a commission for the name, his recipes and the Peking ducks, which we get from his downtown restaurant.”
Three of us ate at the new Sang Kee Noodle Bowl two nights before Hurricane Irene visited us, and we were surprised to see how many customers there were since the place had just opened. The kinks had already been ironed out, which is not always the case with new restaurants. The steamed watercress dumplings (four for $6) with shrimp, pork and ginger soy sauce; stuffed eggplant with shrimp and black bean sauce ($15), noodle bowl with shrimp dumpling, egg noodles and vegetables ($8) and, of course, boneless Peking duck, served with pancakes and scallions in a muscular Hoisin sauce ($19), were all in mid-season form.
For more information, call 610-353-5353 or visit www.sangkeenoodlebowl.com. For Sang Kee Peking Duck House, call 215-925-7532 or visit www.sangkeephiladelphia.com.