Christmas Eve was buzzing Monday at Hon Kee Restaurant in Uptown. So much so that owner Paul Tsang picked up a cleaver and helped chop all the orders of roast duck and barbecued pork.
But Tsang says he’s used to working the holiday.
“We’ve been open Christmas Eve and Day for 38 years,” Tsang said, referring to his family’s Chinese restaurants started by his late father.
Like a lot of local Chinese eateries, Hon Kee stays open Christmas Eve and Christmas to meet demand.
“Christmas Day is a big time in America,” Tsang said. “We have lots of party orders with roast pig, barbecued pork, and roast duck. We have a full house [on Christmas Day]. It will be packed from morning all the way to the evening.”
Although Chicago’s Chinatown Chamber of Commerce didn’t have any financial data on Christmas Day sales, Joseph Lothan of the chamber said brisk business on the holiday has long interested him.
“It gets so busy that it encourages you to try some of the places that you may have never visited before,” he said.
Indeed, some of Chinatown’s most popular restaurants are almost impossible to get into without a reservation Christmas Day.
For years Christmas Day movies and Chinese food have been seen as a quasi-Jewish tradition in urban areas. Kol Emeth Synagogue in Skokie even hosts an annual movie and Chinese luncheon on the day.
Scholars attribute this affinity for Chinese food among some eastern European Jews to a few things. The factors include similar flavor profiles using sweet and sour or garlic; the similarities between wonton soup and kreplach soup; the rare mixing of meat and dairy on the menu; and, well, Chinese restaurants being open on Christmas. Plus, a lot of pork in Chinese food is usually chopped into unrecognizable bits.
But in recent years, Chinese food on Christmas has spread way beyond Jewish customers. Tsang said he now gets orders from a wide range of diners on Christmas and it’s hard to keep up.
Right after our interview, Tsang said he planned to drive to Midway Airport to pick up a big shipment of fresh lobsters from New England.
“We’ll need them for tomorrow,” he said.
So when will Tsang and his staff get to celebrate?
“We’re usually closed on Tuesdays,” he said. “But this week, we’ll be closed on Wednesday and that’s when we’ll rest and celebrate. Same thing next week for New Years!”