Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.
It seems strange to visit Sam Wo before midnight. In my 20s, Sam Wo was just the place you went when you had been drinking downtown and needed late-night chow fun. It's still "that place with the dumbwaiter" to tens of thousands of San Franciscans, many of whom never venture farther up the hill from Washington and Grant.
Look closely, and you get the sense that the narrow, three-story building is squashed between two other buildings, propped up between their exterior walls. You enter into the kitchen, gawk at the cooks for a few seconds, then take the steps up to the first dining room, paneled in what looks like formica, each of the tables built out of the walls and surrounded by stools. In short: dirty and adorable.
Some say Sam Wo was founded a decade before the 1906 earthquake. The place has been a magnet for non-Chinese diners since the 1950s, many of them searching out its most famous attraction, Edsel Ford Fong. As Shirley Fong-Torres wrote in The Woman Who Ate Chinatown:
Edsel ... had command of the second and third floors of the restaurant, while his brother Henry Ford Fong worked the first floor. Sam Wo's food was not its main attraction -- customers came to see and be verbally abused by Edsel. He instructed customers where to sit and what to order. He did not necessarily bring you what you ordered, which he sometimes scribbled down while smoking a cigarette. ... He was notorious for flirting with girls, rudely criticizing customers, and reminding people about tipping him.
Fong died in 1984, and the woman who waited on us was no more affably gruff than the staff at the ten previous restaurants I've eaten in.
When you're used to seeing Sam Wo raucous, smelling of secondhand beer fumes, it can feel a little forlorn to encounter the third floor closed and the room shared only by one or two other tables, everyone chatting in Cantonese.
It had been a decade since my last visit, and the menu wasn't as Americanized as I expected, with jook, stir-fried noodles, wonton soup, rice noodle soup, a few of the standard Cantonese rice plates you see all over the neighborhood. No one goes to Sam Wo expecting culinary miracles, and at $5 a dish, the food was solid enough. The smoky wok breath on my chow fun with beef and bean sprouts was a little closer to wok char than I'd hoped, but the wide rice noodles were slippery, distinct, and well seasoned. My fried rice had just enough crisp surfaces and flecks of meat, egg, and spring onion to keep it interesting.
And the rice noodle rolls filled with barbecued pork were more than interesting. Cool and soft, the steamed rice noodles picked up the sweetness of the pork's marinade, cut with cilantro's bright flash. Our server brought a plate of Chinese mustard with the rolls, and so I dutifully dabbed one round into the sauce, but it seared its way through the pork and herbs. I downed a cup of tea, cleared my throat, and returned to the noodle rolls. A little chastening wasn't going to keep me from enjoying the meal.
Sam Wo: 813 Washington (at Grant), 982-0596.