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Brandon's Big Gay Blog

In Memoriam: Sam Wo

by Brandon Burt
Posted // 2012-04-23 -

It is with great sadness that I respond to the demise of Sam Wo, the iconic San Francisco hole-in-the-wall restaurant.

For more than 100 years, Sam Wo has been serving up cheap food at 813 Washington Street (between Grant Street and Waverly Place). Unfortunately, the restaurant was shut down Friday by the San Francisco Department of Public Health due to a number of complaints including "violations ranging from employees not washing their hands and contaminating food to rodent feces in the kitchen and improper food storage."

Well, what's a few rodent feces among friends? I have only the fondest memories of Sam Wo. It was back in 2002 when, during a carefully planned trip to San Francisco, my then-boyfriend and I encountered an unexpected return-flight delay, and we had to extend our hotel stay by a couple of extra nights. The airline cheerfully refused to chip in.

Now, by San Francisco standards, the Beresford has very reasonable rates for a moderately clean hotel in a decently non-scary neighborhood. But, as a couple of working-class yokels hailing from a flyover state, the extra $88 per night just about broke our budget.

While waiting for our flight back to Salt Lake International, we spent the days wandering forlornly about the city, seeking cheap entertainment wherever it could be found: reading books at City Lights, trudging through Golden Gate Park. The earlier hedonistic joy of our San Francisco vacation turned to abnegation and despair. Food became scarce, apart from the Beresford's complimentary continental breakfast consisting of cereal, melon cubes and reheated croissants.

In fact, had my boyfriend not been such a hipster, we might have starved to death. He had read of some 1950s-era beatnik who used to meet his opium-addicted friends at a Chinatown dive called Sam Wo.

Miraculously, Sam Wo was not only located within walking distance of our hotel, but also offered prices that were within our diminished budget. So, during those two desperate days, we ate all our meals there.

Patrons entered Sam Wo through the kitchen, and we ascended flights of stairs up to the third floor, where we were seated. The second floor seemed to be occupied by friends of the owner and other special customers. We were too late to have been served by Edsel Ford Fong, known as "the world's rudest waiter" -- who died in 1984 -- and unfortunately, the outside balcony was off-limits, even for cigarette addicts, due to the building's structural defects. In fact, the whole place was as rickety and decrepit as a carnival funhouse.

But still, the food was cheap, and we entertained ourselves watching servers bring up our orders from the ground-floor kitchen through a hand-pulled dumbwaiter. At the end of the meal, that dumbwaiter also served as the conduit via which our cash payment, attached to a clothespin, was delivered downstairs, and our pre-tip change was retrieved.

I'll never forget the "Chinese doughnut" -- a crispy, savory fry-bread that rivaled the deliciousness of any Mexican sopapilla or Mormon "scone." And the curry chicken may not have been excellent, but it was OK. It may or may not have contained rat feces -- but I suffered no ill effects afterward.

I'm sorry to see this San Francisco institution go.

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Posted // April 26,2012 at 18:10

Squeaky clean kitchens are overrated. 


Posted // April 26,2012 at 17:08

As a fresh-faced 20-something, I too was introduced to Sam Wo's "enter through the kitchen and clomp up the stairs" dive eatery. Unwashed hands and rodent feces aside, we fearlessly ordered the raw fish salad and tomato beef and lived to tell about it. Many times over, in fact.

Sam Wo's is such a Chinatown institution, and the groundswell of support is such that I would be amazed if it does not reopen, a bit cleaner and less divey.


Posted // April 23,2012 at 17:42

John Saltas, you were very fortunate to have met Edsel Ford Fong. I grew up in the City and recall the first time I went up to Edsel's floor as a kid with my family and was absolutely on my best behavior because of how the "Living Landmark" (a distinction bestowed upon him by the S F City Board of Supervisors) unfolded in front of us kids. I never got the full treatment from Edsel because I was wise to the legend and navigated myself properly; but it was sure a lot of fun to see tourists coming in from the corn fields and got their San Francisco Treats: (when you are ready to order, be specific like the Pacific; and the looks on them good folks from Idaho were worth everything. No, you don't want that, you won't like it because I know so. My name is Edsel, not Toyota (or car model du jour), really!). He had told me to bring my girlfriends to see him when I got older, I did and a couple of them nearly got groped by Edsel in front of everyone on his floor but didn't seem as bothered as when I first tried the same. Edsel also had a unique brand of charm when he wanted to dish it out. The best evening to go to Sam Wo by far was late night on Halloween, Edsel would be on his edgy best?worst and hyper conductive with his zings and leers. I wish I had taped them, even if it's just in audio (a flurry in San Franglish - a fiery mixture of guttural Cantonese & Engrish). For many natives of SF, it was like getting your flu shot; an element of necessity that prompted you to go and get some abuse or be witness to. Best of luck to Sam Wo and thanks for the memories Edsel.


Posted // April 23,2012 at 13:21

Thanks for this Brandon. I took the fam there about 10 years ago, and while Edsel was gone, another fellow dutifully tried to treat us rudely. It was cool, it was kitchy, it was still weird walking into the kitchen but not the same.

Because back in the late 1970s my SFran cousins took me there for dinner to meet the famous Edsel Ford Wong. I can't remember ever having more divey fun in an eatery in my life. Insult after insult and yet we enjoyed every minute, especially when the food came up in the dumbwaiter and he said, "there's your food. Go get it yourself," and walked away.



Posted // April 27,2012 at 09:15 - I have a cousin who lives in San Fransisco and delighted in taking us to Sam Wo's in the mid-70's. Into Chinatown, down an alley, through the back door near the kitchen, up the stairs and into a 'special' family room with big, round tables that sat about 8 people. We were in the secret 'family' room and the food that came up the dumbwaiter was all in huge platters, served family style. Take that, Bucca di Beppo! Oh, and it was otherworldly, taste-wise.


Posted // April 25,2012 at 01:44 - Fantastic, John ... I'm sorry I got there too late to be abused by the "rudest waiter in the world!" Hahaha.