A moment of silence for the death of the infamous Sam Wo Restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. On Friday evening, I read the obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle and am still grappling with the news.
My childhood memories are filled with visits to Sam Wo’s on Washington Street near Grant Avenue. I would usually go with my dad on one of his lunch breaks from work in the Financial District. We would come off the street, walk through the bustling and unsavory kitchen, then up the stairs to the second or third floor to be greeted by Edsel Ford Fong, an equal opportunity bastard, known as the ‘rudest waiter’.
Truth to tell, I was fond of Edsel. Who wouldn’t get a kick out of a waiter who yelled at patrons to hurry up and order, even though they had not yet received their menus? He would hand you a dish and bark at you to hand it to the table behind you because he could not make it through the crowds. On occasion, he would give us an untallied bill, commanding us to total it ourselves. The walls were covered with Polaroid’s of Edsel being kissed by some unsuspecting female patron, as well as sayings like “Be Specific like the Pacific Ocean!” Edsel riddled every sentence with “Check it out!” What’s not to love!?
Occasionally, we would see a cat run through the kitchen or a surly looking chef sneeze into a pot of boiling noodles as the cigarette in his mouth barely flinched. The food was appealing, but the kitchen was disgusting. For this reason, I got into the habit of asking the cooks to wash their hands before handling the noodle rolls. There was likely a sign in the back with my picture on it, with a command to spit in my food if I ask for hands to be washed!
As unsanitary as the 100-year-old restaurant was (and the main reason for its closure), it had huge appeal and was known for two dishes in particular, the barbecue pork rice noodle rolls and the fish salad. I was, and still am, particularly crazy about the rice noodle rolls – thick sheets of rice noodle filled with char siu (bbq pork), baked egg, and cilantro, then rolled into a log and cut sushi style into thick pieces – and always enjoyed mine with a combination of oyster sauce and hot Chinese mustard. This would definitely be on the top of the menu for my ‘last meal’.
My parents loved rice noodle rolls so much (dad still does), that shortly before my mom died, I ran out to Ranch 99 Market for the ingredients. Back in their kitchen, I lovingly prepared the dish from memory, and was so pleased to watch my mom savor every bite of my rice noodle roll re-creation.
Even though I’ve since moved out of the City, I have always known in the back of my mind that I could return for an order of rice noodle rolls, whenever my heart desired. After receiving the earth-shattering news on Friday, I had to do something to come to grips with my loss. On Saturday morning, I ran out to our local Ranch 99 for the ingredients once again.
Unfortunately, the rice noodles I purchased were stale and after steaming them, I was only able to rescue one sheet of noodle to make a single roll. With the remaining ingredients, I made a ‘deconstructed’ rice noodle roll salad, which I later brought to a potluck. The dish consisted of bbq pork slices, baked egg, cilantro, sliced rice noodles, and I tossed it with oyster sauce and a little hot mustard. It had all of the components and flavors of rice noodle rolls – Caleb loved it, and I would make it again!
It now sounds like the owners of Sam Wo’s are trying to work with the City to re-open the restaurant. They would have to spend much money to repair the ancient building and comply with health inspectors and the fire department. If they do re-open, I’ll be dancing in the streets, kissing strangers, and shoving copious amounts of delectable rice noodle rolls into my mouth. Just you wait and see!