Every year in late November, my friend Mark throws himself a birthday party and part of the celebration is to get his birthday cake from the New Hollywood bakery on Pacific Street in Chinatown. This was the second year that I gotten in the car with him to drive on this adventure through the crowded streets of San Francisco to pick up the cake.
Last year he had the Chinese bakers write the ‘Happy Birthday’ message in English instead of Chinese characters. Instead of reading ‘Happy Birthday Mark’, last year’s cake read ‘Happy Birthday Mom’. The end result of local international phone conversations. We were looking forward to what surprise was going to be written on the cake this year.
It was already dark yet still early evening when we picked up the cake. No surprises with the cake greeting this year. We had already gone to pick up the party treats and we had a little bit of time before the guests would be arriving at the house, so we decided to stash the cake in the car and go look for dinner. Mark had a craving for Vietnamese Spring Rolls and as we were looking around for the random Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, I casually said, ‘Hey, why don’t we get go beat ourselves up at Sam Wo?’
This 100+ year old restaurant is famous for someone who is no longer living – Edsel Ford Fong. Edsel was famous for his insults and curmudgeonly attitude towards his customers. ‘You want tea? Go get it yourself.’, could be a comment heard on any random occasion. Although Edsel is no longer with us, and even though the waitresses try their best, the insults have become thin imitations of the originals. They still have bad service. They only have chopsticks, which is not a bad thing. And the food, well, the food is only mediocre at best but worth every penny.
Mark and I were standing on the corner of Grant and Broadway when he enthusiastically agreed to the suggestion to go to Sam Wo. Deciding to get off of busy and crowded Grant Street, we walked the back alleys over the few blocks we needed to travel to get to the restaurant.
On the way we stopped to buy incense and candles for the party. We stopped often to look at shelves of Buddhas created in every Buddha-like configuration and made from every sort of material, like carved red plastic meant to imitate cinnabar, ceramic, or even molded clear plastic that glowed a different color when different colored lights were held underneath them.
At the incense store we found a whole wardrobe of clothing, shoes, and dollhouses made out of paper. Mark couldn’t resist buying a suit. When we asked the clerk at the register what was the purpose of the paper clothing – Was it for a celebration? ‘Yes’, Was it used for wrapping gifts? ‘Yes’, Was it for funerals? ‘Yes’, Was it to dress corpses? ‘Yes’, Was it to wear to parties? ‘Yes’. We looked puzzled, said ‘OK’, and weren’t quite clear on it’s usage until a few stores later where a nice woman told us that the paper clothing was to be burned in offering at a funeral so that the dearly departed would have good luck and abundance in the afterlife.
Along the way we also passed a few Chinese printing houses, an ATM machine that was out of money, Chinese herb and ginseng stores, and a fortune cookie factory with the sweet smell of good fortune flowing out its doors.
Finally making it to the restaurant we stepped into the very narrow kitchen that takes up the first floor of the establishment. We walked right past a big pile of cut up chicken parts and chopped vegetables and on past the pots of steamed rice. As the cook was placing dishes of hot steamy food in the dumbwaiter to raise to the customers waiting floors above, he told us ‘gouptair, gouptair’ waving his arm towards the narrow, steep stairs. We climbed to the second floor (there are three) where there was a table near the window. We took our seats and the waitress threw the menus on the table and promptly disappeared.
Sam Wo is a place that I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself in at 2am after a drunken binge at the Buddha Bar or Vesuvio’s. Its florescent lighting and aged walls are enough to make a straight person’s head swim or straighten up a drunk. The funky marble topped wooden tables with their random assortment of wobbly wooden stools with no backs spaced in the narrow crowded rooms could be the grist of a Jack Kerouac novel or a Gary Snyder poem.
I have this quirk of finding only one thing that I like to eat at each restaurant I go to, especially Chinese restaurants. When I go to Sam Wo I only have the Stir Fried Rice. A plateful for $3. It’s the only dish I know that can handle all of the grease of this place, or maybe it’s the only dish where I can handle it. I’ve heard folks rave about the Congee, a thick Chinese rice soup flavored with various things, but when I think about that dish, I just want to gag. I think Congee is an acquired taste.
Mark wanted Won-Ton Soup, which is always made with pork these days in the won-ton’s pre-stuffed frozen natural state as nobody makes fresh won-tons anymore. We also got an order of vegetarian Egg Rolls even though Mark was sure that he had ordered Potstickers. He didn’t. We took random photographs with my camera while we waited for the food to arrive. Out the window I could see across the street that a Chinese wedding party was assembling for a reception at another restaurant. The wedding party pulled up in various black cars. The photographer arrived. The men were all dressed in black and all the women were in white. I don’t know if I ever saw the newlyweds, or maybe they all were.
The neon lighting of the Sam Wo sign filled the opaque, slatted window with colorful light and some Chinese lanterns strung across the doorway of a store across the street swayed in the slight urban breeze.
Our food finally arrived and we ate it up. While we ate, I told Mark that Chinatown in San Francisco is one of the only places in the world where I actually feel like that god awful creature – the American Tourist. I’ve never been to Hong Kong, and I wasn’t in San Francisco a hundred years ago, but I can only imagine that Sam Wo is as authentic as it gets for grungy, antique, Chinese food in The City.
As we left the restaurant and we walked back through another set of alleys towards the car, we passed a Buddhist temple dedicated to Ma Tsu. Outside two women were praying and burning packages and packages of incense in a large incense burning canister set on the sidewalk, lighting the alley with its firelight and fuming the whole passage with its pungent smoke. There were two thousand sticks of incense in that fire if there were a hundred. They invited us in to have a look at their temple. One of the curiosities of this particular temple was the granting of answers to questions through the use of divination sticks. Posted on the wall at the entry were the implicit directions on how to ask a question and the use of the sticks that were placed on the altars. The final direction being that the questioner should go to the front desk and ask for someone named Mimi to read the fall of the sticks. We decided that the process was was too confusing, and probably eventually addicting, that we weren’t centered enough, and we had a party to get to, so we thanked the women and went on our way.
Note: Sam Wo closed in April 2012.
Story Edited: May 8, 2010
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