sam wo in chinatown....the return of old-school americanized chinese food
Sam Wo Restaurant in Chinatown is an institution in San Francisco. It has been open on and off since 1912. It has such a history, they have their own Wikipedia entry. You can read all about it their, but they were known for being in the same location for 100 years and having one of the "rudest waiters in Chinatown." An dubious distinction no doubt, especially since no one really talked about the food. To be honest, I'd known about the spot but was only ever marginally interested in checking it out. I mean there are loads of joints in the area and I just never really felt the need to seek it out. Particularly toward the end where they had numerous food safety concerns.
Then in 2012 the place closed down due to severe rodent infestation and well, ewww. In 2014, the last owner of the restaurant and its name vowed to find a new spot and re-open in this towns hot restaurant climate. And lo and behold, in October of 2015 the brand spanking new Sam Wo Restaurant re-opened to much fanfare. I met it with the same, eh, shrug as before. Flash forward about a year and some of the SO's Chicago relatives are touring through town and they want to meet up in Chinatown for some dinner. It falls to me to pick a spot and I'm like, ding, ding, ding, let's try that Sam Wo place.
It is a long narrow space with with an enclosed loft like seating area over the back half you get to by climbing a narrow set of stairs. Fortunately the ceiling is slightly high so it doesn't feel so cramped but the only thing I could think was "yikes! How are we gonna get out if there is a grease fire?!" Trying to put that out of my mind I concentrate on the menu. The waiter seems real intent on getting us to try the house specialty appetizer. He seems to have caught us in one of those moods where we are like, sure why not.
It is the lovely bbq pork rice noodle roll. Point of fact, there is a really old guy in the front window making these by the boatloads which I guess is what makes it a "house specialty." It is a flat sheet of rice flour dough, steamed and rolled with chopped bbq pork and shredded lettuce. I would almost equate this to a steamed pork bun, but more noodle like than bread. And the pork inside isn't the sweet stuff you will find in a bun. It is more like what you find on a banh mi sandwich. It tastes exactly like what it is, sticky and meaty. Those are basic flavors and that is what you get here. It is not exciting by any means. It's kind of plain and no real flavor at all. It really needed soy sauce to pick it up. I'm not gonna say this was anyones favorite, but it wasn't like we hated the taste or anything. It was just kind of blah. It is the sort of thing you can get your parents to eat so they can say they had some "weird Chinese food thing."
For some reason the SO was feeling nostalgic so we got some spring rolls. Pretty standard deep fried phyllo like rolls filled with shredded cabbage and mostly likely pork or chicken. Hard to tell some times when it is ground up so small. And there is the sweet and sour dipping sauce like a thick sweet bowl of orange red jelly waiting to be slathered over some greasy deep friedness. Definitely will bring back some delivery memories for sure.
Continuing in an old school vein we got some sweet and sour pork. This was exactly like the stuff I would get as a kid at the only Chinese restaurant in town. Battered and deep fried chunks of pork with large pieces of rough cut onions, green peppers and pineapple all slathered in the same sweet and sour dipping sauce we had with the spring rolls. A total flashback dish that will appeal to the masses. We all know this isn't real Chinese food, but faux dishes pulled together to appeal to a larger audience. And the do a pretty good job of this one. It was made to order so the pork is still hot and crispy and it has that slightly sour then burst of sweet we all know and hate to admit we love sometimes.
Now we start to stretch ourselves, a little with some house chow fun. Basically all the meats--chicken, beef, pork and shrimp stir fried with bok choy, onions and thin rice noodles. A Chinese pasta dish as it were, and it was pretty good. There really was a lot of meat mixed in with copious amounts of noodles and big bushes of bok choy. Sure, it might have been a fraction of a tad bit on the greasy side, but that always seems to be something we get used to with quick Chinese. Didn't keep us from enjoying this hearty filling dish that would definitely be comfort food like on a rainy, chilly day.
But we didn't end there. I was intrigued by something on the menu called dry mixed noodle. The waiter described it as "noodle no soup," and I was okay sure why. (Still in the let's try it vein)
Turns out his description was pretty accurate. It is a bowl of spaghetti like rice noodles mixed with strips of duck, green onion and lettuce. Kind of like a duck noodle salad. No sauce, no broth--what you see is what you get. It was definitely different and filling, though it lacked on the flavor scale. I think having the broth adds some needed salt and whatever else you might find seasoning wise. The noodles are not actually dry, they are still hot out of the boiling water, but they needed something and that is where the sriracha came in for me. I sprinkled just enough over it to kick it up in taste. Besides that, you do get a large bowl with plenty of noodle, duck strips and lettuce and it will make you feel full. So there was that.
Nothing we had at Sam Wo was terrible, in fact, it was all cooked to order and came to the table hot and ready to eat. And outside of some dishes lacking in the flavor and seasoning department, they didn't have any weird "what is that" tastes to them. As a whole, it is pretty decent versions of Americanized Chinese food which in the instance of taking visitors in town to, worked out pretty well. In fact, I would say if you want to take your out of town friends, folks, family, etc. to a "funky Chinatown" spot, this place works out well. It feels cool, hip and in the know, at least for those who don't live here. Added bonus, Sam's is open till 3am on the weekends. If you have been our bar hopping, the food works well to soak up all that alcohol, without making you feel sick the next morning. I know in my younger days, I'd be all for that.