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A couple years ago, my husband took me to a swanky restaurant in the City for my birthday. After the impeccably dressed host greeted us, we were whisked off to the dining room. The dining room manager pulled out my chair, unfolded my napkin, and placed it on my lap. Menus appeared. Another member of the waitstaff filled our water goblets. 

The “bread girl” arrived. Her sole job throughout the evening was serving rolls with silver tongs. Our meal was as impressive as the service. 

But apart from the restaurant’s much photographed interior and the carefully orchestrated service, I can’t remember what I had for dinner.  

We have certain expectations when we walk into a restaurant. We expect to be treated well. We want good food and value for our money.

So you’ll wonder why I was saddened today when I heard that a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, with a reputation for cheap eats and rude service, was closing. After 100 years, Sam Wo Restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown will fire up the wok one last time this weekend. 

Photo: Paul Chinn/SF Chronicle

Sam Wo is an institution. A destination for tourists and generations of Bay Area dwellers. Housed in a narrow (I mean narrow, like twelve feet wide), three story building, customers entered through the kitchen on the first floor. After navigating your way past the cook and kitchen helpers chopping vegetables, you’d hike up the stairs to the second or third floor to get a table. 

Ambience? Zero. No white linen tablecloths here. Beat up stools and worn wooden tables line the dingy walls of the dining area. I suspect the tables date back before the war. (WWI)

 

I was a college student the first time I ate at Sam Wo. Upon arriving on the second floor, my friend and I were greeted by the restaurant’s infamous impressario Edsel Ford Fong. He pointed to a table and barked, “Sit down!” We sat.

He tossed a grimy menu, an order pad and a stubby pencil on the table, and told us to write up our order. We were too intimidated question him. 

Edsel returned a few minutes later and scratched off all but two of the items we’d scribbled on the pad. “Too much food.” He laughed maniacally, handed me a teapot, and told me to pour tea. For the other diners.

I poured.

As I went from table to table refilling tea cups, I observed Edsel moving a startled couple, mid-meal, to another table with two strangers because he needed their table for a party of four. Is this guy for real?

Orders from the kitchen arrived in a dumbwaiter. My beef chow fun was delicious, with just the right wok char to meld the flavors. While we ate, we watched Edsel slam plates onto tables and blast diners for leaving paltry tips. He’d scowl and let loose a stream of Cantonese curse words. Some customers looked shell-shocked. Others seemed indifferent. They must have been regulars.

Arriving customers were treated with the same glaring disdain we’d experienced. Diners would have their plates whisked away before they were finished with their meals. More table switching. A new victim pouring tea.

I sat back and enjoyed the show. I guess you could call it bargain dinner theater.

As my friend and I were leaving, Edsel slung his arm around me and kissed my cheek. My shock was tempered by his friendly grin. I smiled back. Happy and full, I couldn’t wait to tell my friends about this place.

I’d never been treated so badly in a restaurant. And yet, it was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever eaten.

By the time I paid another visit to Sam Wo, Edsel had passed away. Still, the restaurant remained a popular destination. Open until 3 a.m., it was the perfect spot for a late night snack. The same yellow walls greeted me in the shoebox-sized dining area. I’d order a noodle dish or have the jook (rice porridge) with sticks of yao jia gwei, a fried bread, which is one of my earliest taste memories. The food was good, but without Edsel, it didn’t feel the same. 

I know I’m not the only one with fond memories of perfect chow fun and the man with a scowl…and a smile.   

Do you have a favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant? A particularly memorable meal?

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