Street /Grant Ave., SF
hearing at Li Po
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.
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...
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
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
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
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.