A friend is visiting me soon, so I've been on an informal restaurant scout for her visit. I hate nothing more than disappointing someone when they're on vacation. Anyway, fate brought me to the doorstep of Sam Wo just as hunger was starting to strike. Abovementioned friend had said that her co-worker, an, SF native, had told her she "HAD to try Sam Wo" while she was here.
Shrugging it off as $4 down the drain if I was disappointed, I walked in. Wow. Dingy. There were three cooked crammed into a galley kitchen the size of a large closet, and things did not look clean. And I have pretty forgiving standards. Let's just say that Sam Wo made the following deserve a prize for cleanliness: Tulan, Naan N' Curry, Saigon Sandwich Shop, the Tonayense taco truck. Nonplussed, I trekked upstairs. The first floor was half filled, and I walked over to the window to sit down. I was screamed at by the waitress to sit back near the stairs. But it was dark there. No lights. I said no, I wanted to sit in the light. She screamed indignantly that she had no time to bus that table (or turn on a light), and I'd have to sit in the dark or keep walking upstairs. Okay....so I walked upstairs. No need to scream!
Okay, okay, the food.
I had wontons in beef stew (the ngaw lam that's been so talked about recently). The beef was unevenly cooked; some pieces were falling apart and some were crunchy. The middle of some pieces was cold, leading me to believe they make several separate batches and just have them sitting in a pot getting cold somewhere. The soup itself was fine; the primary flavors are correct but some of the background flavors are missing. Ngaw lam on the cheap is how I think of it. The wontons were huge, almost like a ping pong ball. The filling was nothing special, and it had huge chunks of waterchestnuts in it. I'm not a fan. So...
Sam Wo relies on the sheer dinginess of its appearance to draw in tourists who don't want to do their research. The restaurant is really old, and therefore well known by the big tourist books and websites. It's described as a place with authentic flavors just off the bustle of Grant Street. Tourist feel that by walking off of Grant, they're somehow entering "real" Chinatown. Most of the people there were tourists reviewing photos on their digital cameras or flipping through their guides for the next destination. As I left, a family of tourists came, wide-eyed, into the restaurant. They looked, touched, and commented on everything in sight. I'm sure the English-only teenager waiting tables at the restaurant found them hilarious.
I love hole in the walls, but Sam Wo goes too far. When you deign to eat in a dirty restaurant, it's usually because it's super cheap or you can't find that food elsewhere. Sam Wo's food isn't bad. But there are many places in Chinatown that serve better versions of the same dishes, bigger portions, in a sanitary environment, with friendly service, for the same or a lower price.
After eating at Sam Wo, I was on the lookout for that same beef soup, and found it at at least half a dozen restaurants for the same or lower price. Some places were divey, some were cafes set inside bakeries, and some were casual white tablecloth operations.
As for late night dining, there are plenty of choices up on Broadway, like Yuet Lee. Really, there's no reason to end up in Sam Wo unless you find yourself starving or piss-drunk at their doorstep and unable to continue without eating.