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Sam Wo
813 Washington Street /Grant Ave., SF
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Pretrial hearing at Li Po

Guest Judge Franko

It's 1981. I'm leaving the Chelsea Place with my pal Hop at 2:00 a.m. He's 300-plus and knows food and where to find it late in S.F. We're headed for Sam Wo, the venerable old-time Chinese greasy spoon. The building is about 10 feet wide and five stories tall. You enter through the kitchen, past the woks and chopping blocks, pushing past the cooks, busboys, and waiters. Then you climb a tiny stairway to low ceilinged floors with six or seven small tables and a dumbwaiter. If the floor is full, up to the next, until you find a table. The third and fourth floors were the bailiwick of the world's rudest, worst, most insulting waiter, the legendary Edsel Ford Fong. He had a brother named Henry Ford Fong, who had the first and second floors. I guess their Dad really liked Fords.

I had the bad idea of asking for sweet and sour pork and a coke. "You Retarded? No coke!! Tea Only!! No sweet and sour!! You see on menu?!! You get house special chow fun...No fork, chopstick only...What you want, fat man?" answered Edsel. After Hop ordered without getting yelled at, I noticed a wall of Polaroid photos. They were all of Edsel, in various degrees of groping unsuspecting young females. A charming first date destination if you want to never see your date again. My ex-wife ended up on the wall. The groping part was probably the only time Edsel smiled. She was not amused. The chow fun arrived, and was hot and greasy, just the thing to add a little extra misery to tomorrow's well-deserved hangover. Oh yeah...

It's 2002. Sam Wo is still there, but Edsel is gone. No more Polaroids. No more house special chow fun on the menu. I ordered it anyway and got no lip from the waitress. They had Coke and forks. All our food tasted the same. We got three wrong orders out of six. We should have kept them, because when the food did get there, I was thoroughly underwhelmed. As we milled about outside we debated going to a bar, or maybe another place to eat, 'cause we were still kinda hungry. Edsel Ford Fong has left the building...You can't go home, again...


Slow down, hold on, what's for dinner?

Sam's serving up Chinese in Chinatown, how nice. A bunch of us were looking for a meal that night and our good buddy and guest judge, Bobby Franko, suggested Sam Wo. I remember going a few years back for the ambiance, level upon level of small dining rooms, each tended to by a server using a dumbwaiter to get the food from the bowels of the restaurant to your table. That server was oh so rude. Telling you what to order and what you can't have, laying down the law and keeping you on your toes. The food being secondary but cheap, cheap, cheap.

Well, Sam Wo on the night of our outing lived up to my expectations food-wise, blah. Every dish bland, just like the last and sure to be like the next. Not much variety in color, texture, or flavor. Could it be that down that dumbwaiter shaft there is a big vat of goop they're dippin' into?

I must say that the entertainment value of the Wo just wasn't there. Sure we had a surly waitress who gave us bad service, but where was the hatred? It was amusing for the six of us to be crammed around a table for two (maybe four) and be ignored and brought the wrong dishes but it was missing the free-for-all craziness of yesteryear. Maybe it was just an off night and you might be a little luckier and get the full show of rudeness you deserve when you go.

So, order what you like -- it doesn't really matter. The Duck Rice Soup ($3) was a nice once I perked it up with hot sauce and soy sauce. Also, if you didn't get enough to drink at the Li Po Lounge feel free to bring your own beer to the Wo.

To finish off, cheap is cheap, $35 for the six of us. It's worth a look-see to have a meal in Chinatown but I'm sure there are tastier places...We'll let you know.



Sam Wo is more of an experience than a restaurant. And since they've been dishing up this experience for some 100 years, I guess they're doing something right. I'd say everyone should go there once, just don't expect the finest cuisine. Do expect cheap, decent food, and if you're lucky, a very rude waitperson.

By the by, according to Speedy Shyu: "'Sam Wo' is a phonetic translation of a Cantonese phrase. The equivalent Mandarin phrase, I believe, is "san he." The literal meaning is "triple harmonies." It's an auspicious phrase."

The last time I went there was about 15 years ago, and a main attraction was that we could bring our own beer in and do some underage drinking. Yeehaw! Plus, it was generally a festive environment, frequented by your college kids and whatnot. The night The Füd Court was there, a couple next to us popped a bottle of champagne they had brought with them. So, for God's sake, bring your own booze, cuz they ain't got any.

Other than that, just be prepared to enter what appears to be some Chinese food speakeasy, where you enter through the kitchen and scale up cramped staircases to find your cramped table on one of the floors above. People must have been considerably smaller a hundred years ago.

Like I said, the food is decent and cheaper than hell. We six got out of there for 35 bucks even. In fact, that's all the "bill" said, "$35". No list of dishes, no tax, nothing but 35 bucks. I guess the cantankerous waitress didn't have time.

So, yeah, all the food tasted pretty much the same and was not bad. Order whatever strikes your fancy, and just enjoy this low-brow Chinatown experience before the building is condemned.


I don't know if Sam Wo really opened in 1902, but that's what the menu claims: "100 Years Old." I've meant to eat there since landing in San Francisco (I am 6 1/2 years old here), having heard many anecdotes over the years. Supposedly Allen Ginsberg and company dined there after his triumphant Gallery 6 "Howl" reading in 1955. That night, legend has it, Gary Snyder taught Jack Kerouac how to use chopsticks. Who knows? Sounds good though.

The place itself lives up to lore. Apparently it goes up three flights, but we were stopped at the first one. They jammed our party of six into a table for four and threw some menus at us. I don't remember seeing anything over five bucks. After a while we heard the dumbwaiter buzz and the waitress started putting things down -- some of which we had ordered. Judge McClure protested emphatically until she finally took away the two we hadn't. Eventually the right ones dumbwaitered on up, and luckily so, because they were the meal's best dishes: rice porridge with duck and combination chow fun. The porridge was tasteless when it arrived, but after liberal dousing with Louisiana Hot Sauce (don't ask me) and soy (the two condiments available), Judge McC brought out its flavor. At four bucks or so, it's a lot of porridge to the dollar. I would also recommend the little minty noodle rolls as an appetizer.

Other than the porridge, I found the portions pretty skimpy. And outside of the chow fun, the dishes were padded heavily with lettuce or cabbage. I was ready to eat again by the time we finished the photo shoot. Also, they don't have potstickers. But hell, at $35 for six people, with two appetizers, it's tough to complain.

I have to give a shout to Li Po, the pre-trial bar, not the 8th-century poet it's named after. Well, hell, to him too. Two legendary Chinatown spots in one night, and we owe both to Guest Judge Bobby.






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