Guest author Julia Pham is a queer feminist who dropped out of art school at age 23 to pursue cooking. After working in several cafes and restaurants, she opened an underground restaurant, relish, in 2012 as a creative outlet and a medium to promote sustainable agriculture. She collaborated on menus with the other chefs, organized events, and tied it all together with a South East Asian theme, which referenced different areas of her life and heritage before relish was shut down in November 2014. Since then, she has been finding her voice in writing about food and culture.
In her spare time, she experiments with food, raises queer visibility through volunteer work, educates others about sustainability and permaculture, gets tattoos and practices funny accents.
At 16, I was fresh to this city. I was afraid to ride the bus, fascinated by the punks on Belmont and Clark, in awe of downtown, and didn’t have a clue as to where to eat. My friends and I planned our days off around going to eat at Cheesecake Factory on Michigan, for fuck’s sake. When we couldn’t afford to blow all the hard-earned money we’d made in two weeks on a shitty, American, chain-restaurant meal, we would frequent Chiu Quon on Argyle for the siu mai, egg tarts, and fat noodles they have sitting at room temp, slightly exposed all day on the counter. Sun Wah was also another Argyle favorite of ours, back when their old location was much smaller, shadier, and dirtier, but their ducks were FIRE.
When I wasn’t exploring new and favorite restaurants with friends, I went out with my family, who dine like they’re in an eating competition at every meal. My aunt Josephine was majorly pregnant and hungry at the time, and she had pan-Asian cravings around the clock. Admittedly, I had a faux pregnant belly along with her, and I was growing an Asian junk food baby. Whatever and however much she ate, I would eat too.
Her sister, Amy, who always had a new place in mind to try, mentioned a Chinese spot in Albany Park owned by Koreans one day. “I hear it’s pretty good—they’re known for their wings. Regina recommends it,” she said nonchalantly. Without much further persuasion, Josephine and I agreed to go. Regina was a close family (Korean) friend, and we all trusted her with our lives when it came to food. If she recommended a place–especially if it had anything to do with Korean food–we regarded it as a command.
Thirty minutes later, we pulled up to a yellow, red, and black sign that read Great Seas Restaurant. After we all stepped through the entrance door, we were greeted with a sweet, spicy, savory smell that had our mouths watering within seconds, and photos of people next to piles of chicken bones, holding pieces of paper with a number indicating how many wings they’d just devoured. “The wings must be good if that guy can eat 86 of them,” Josephine stated, vocalizing the obvious.
Everything was slightly familiar and comforting about Great Seas–from the gray carpet, to the large, ambiguous, leafy plant by the front window, to the dated tables, chairs, and dinnerware. I felt like I was in Grandma’s house, circa 1994.
Amy took the initiative to order, since she was the one introducing us to the spot. “We will have the cha jiang mien (black bean noodles), combination chow mein, and spicy wings.” Her words came to life as I looked around the restaurant: every single table had one or all of those items on it. I didn’t have much time to look around and wonder because our food came out shortly after we’d put our order in. Our server appeared table-side and asked if we want our cha jiang mien cut. We all nodded enthusiastically, eager to eat and satiate our nagging hunger and curiosity.
As soon as she was done snipping our noodles, we all smashed. There wasn’t much talking happening—just lots of lip-smacking, loud chewing, and grunting, which are all Asian indications of satisfaction.
I would say that we all fell in love with the food, place, and concept, the fact is…we were straight up addicted. We came back two more times that week, and two more the week after, and two more the week after. I had dreams about it, took my friends there, and raved about it to just about anyone. Not many other people I knew had even heard of it, despite it being a known go-to spot for wings since 1987.
At age 20, I was in my second year of college, and working 2.5 jobs. I moved across the street from Great Seas, but never ate there. My addiction to their wings never waned: I was working and supporting myself through college, and I couldn’t afford to go out to eat. At the time, paying $25 (the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries) for a plate of chicken wings and chow mein was way beyond my budget.
Cooking had become my favorite past-time, and I figured if I couldn’t get the real thing, I could at least attempt to make it myself (with the assistance of the internet). I purchased their famous wing sauce for $5 and slathered it on some chicken I had cubed, corn-starched, and fried. Sure, it was no chicken lollipop, but I got to relive the years of being 16 and having the luxury of family dinners at Great Seas.
In retrospect, it seems as though my lack of funds led me to a greater path. Four years after that, I would hold my first underground dinner where I served Frenched drumettes with berry barbecue sauce, inspired by the lollipop wings Great Seas exposed me to.
Needless to say, my heart dropped when I heard the owners sold the restaurant to others. And by “others” I mean people outside of their family. Their dad won’t be cooking large batches of their desirable sauce anymore. Whether the newcomers will uphold the quality and taste of that magic is yet to be determined. I haven’t heard much since they took over on June 1st. If the familiarity is absent on my next visit, I always have the option of visiting the owners’ daughter’s wing joint in Pilsen, Take Me Out. It’s not quite Great Seas, but it’s still dank.
Great Seas sparked something in me; their chicken wings changed my life. My experiences there drove me to be resourceful, observant, and appreciative. Even when I couldn’t afford to dine there, I still had the option of bottled wing sauce, which left me to my own devices. I can’t say that Cheesecake Factory has anything resembling an “accessible option”. I just worked with what I had, and it was an experience in itself. It ignited that fire inside of me, and instead of asking, “Where can I get that made?”, I started asking, “How can I make that myself?” To that, I owe them my career.