So long, Sam Wo: The Best Little Secret Everybody Knew About

My dad grew up San Bruno, California. It’s a little city just south of South San Francisco. So, pretty much, my dad grew up in San Francisco.

He’s told me plenty of stories about growing up in The City.

When the Giants moved out to San Francisco from New York, my dad and his friends would ride their bikes to Candlestick Park to see Willie Mays play. This bike ride, I am told, involved riding across the freeway… That’s crazy!

When the Giants were out of town, he and his buddies would play at the airport. The friggin’ airport! That’s crazy!

When the Fourth of July was coming up, they would head over to the back alleys of China Town to buy firecrackers. That’s crazy!

In a word, my dad is CRAZY!

As a kid, I was so jealous of all the crazy stuff my dad was able to do with his friends just due to his proximity to The City.

I grew up in Ben Lomond, California. No baseball team. No airport. No China Town.

When I was in junior high, I mentioned to my friends about how my dad used to get firecrackers in China Town. A few of them suggested that we get my dad to take us up to find some. When I asked my dad, I was a little shocked when he said yes.

“Sure I’ll take you guys. And while we’re up there, I’ll take you to the coolest restaurant you’ve ever seen.”

So one Saturday morning, I jumped into my dad’s car with my ol’ buddy Dave Thevegetarian and my neighbor K.T. to get us some firecrackers. We got to China Town around noon.

We spent about an hour roaming from shop to shop and alley to alley, with my dad asking around about firecrackers. My dad, who at the time looked like Ned Flanders from the Simpsons, figured out that if there were firecrackers to be sold nobody was going to sell them to him. So… we gave up our search.

Next on the agenda was lunch.

“This place,” my dad told us, “is my spot. I’ve been going here since I was in high school. Nobody knows about it.”

We came up on a skinny little storefront that read, “Sam Wo”. When I peeked through the front door, all I saw was a dirty old kitchen.

“Where’s the restaurant?” I asked my dad.

“Follow me, boys!” My dad just walked right into the kitchen toward a set of stairs in the back. Feeling a bit weird about it, we stepped into the kitchen along with him and began to walk up the stairs.

Once we reached the second floor, we walked into a narrow dining room and were seated right next to the window overlooking the neighborhood. As far as the decor or the dining room, there really wasn’t much to speak of. It was your typical run-down Chinese restaurant. Then my dad pointed out the dumbwaiter…

“Since the kitchen is on the first floor,” he told us, “the chef will put our food on that elevator in the wall, and it will come up to us.”

What!?!?

First we walk through the kitchen, now there’s an elevator for my food?

“This place is the bomb!” I exclaimed.

Dave and K.T. high-fived each other and said, “Word!”

I don’t remember what the food tasted like that day…

I don’t even remember what I ordered.

What I do remember is that I went to this totally bad ass Chinese restaurant called Sam Wo, and nobody knows about it.

Let’s fast forward…

When I was finishing up college at San Jose State University, my good buddy from high school, JR Fromgirls, moved up to San Francisco from Santa Cruz. When he first moved to The City, my buddy Sue and I would often go up to hang out with him.

Each time we came to visit, JR would take us to a hip new place to eat that nobody had ever heard about.

So one night, after drinking a few soda pops at JR’s apartment, we hopped into a cab to go get some food. “I’m gonna take you to the coolest Chinese restaurant in The City,” he told us, “… and nobody knows about it.”

After we stumbled out of the cab, I looked up at the sign on the restaurant.

“Sam Wo?” I read aloud, “I’ve totally been here!”

“No you haven’t,” JR responded, “Nobody knows about this place. You have to walk in through the kitchen.”

Let’s fast forward one last time, shall we?

Last Friday morning, while I was getting ready to go to work, I spotted that familiar Sam Wo sign on the morning news. I turned up the volume in time to catch the anchorman reporting that Sam Wo would be closing up shop.

Here’s a report about it.

It felt weird hearing the news. I’ve only been to Sam Wo twice in my life, and yet I felt really sad about it.

If anyone were to ever ask me where to eat in China Town, I would always tell them about Sam Wo… You know… The place where you walk in through the kitchen.

Nobody even knew about this place… You have to walk in through the kitchen!

It was my dad’s spot.

It was JR’s spot.

It was my spot.

It was Conan O’Brien’s spot…

Apparently… It was everybody’s spot.

But…

It made you feel like you were a part of it.

So…

This weekend, I figured that I would pay tribute to Sam Wo by getting me some Chinese food.

To pay tribute to my readers, I figured I would try to pair my meal with a wine.

Chinese food is not an easy thing to pair wine with.

There’s so many different flavor profiles that you are working with…

Sweet.

Sour.

Spicy.

Earthy.

Salty.

Chinese food has it all.

My suggestion is that if you are going to pair a wine with Chinese food, try to stick with one flavor theme.

When I called up China Palace in Morgan Hill to make my to-go order, I decided to go with Earthy and savory flavors.

Here’s what I got…

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Tea Smoked Duck w/ Dumplings and Duck Sauce, Pork Chow Mein, and Steamed Rice w/ Mad Soy Sauce

If you’ve never had Tea Smoked Duck before, get on it!

The duck is very Earthy, and smokey, and just plain dope.

As far as pairing, I had a couple of wines in mind.  I think a well-made, balanced Zinfandel would work well.  I would also like to try this meal with a spicy Merlot.

In the end, I felt like a Rioja would be the way to go.  I often get a minty, tea-like quality from Tempranillo (the main grape from Rioja).  Why wouldn’t it work with a Tea Smoked Duck?

Here’s what I chose…

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I got the Campo Viejo 2006 Rioja Reserva for 13 bucks from Safeway. You can find this in most grocery stores.

Campo Viejo 2006 Rioja Reserva:

This Rioja is made of 85% Tempranillo, 10% Craciano, and 5% Mazuelo.  It spends 18 months in the barrel and another 18 months in the bottle before it is released.  The Campo Viejo comes in at 13.5% alcohol.

Color: Dark brick red.

Nose: This nose is a fun one.  There’s a nice balance of sun-dried tomato and raspberry.  There is a minty aroma, along with tea, smoke, and cedar.

Taste: Raspberry and blackberry fruit up front.  There is a long finish of tea spice and acid.  There are pretty, supple tannins in this one.

Pairings: The duck has these rich, Earthy, and gamey notes.  The wine makes the tea smoke pop.  The chow mein has bright pork flavors and Earthy noodles.  It brings out the blackberry notes in the wine.  The buttery and starchy flavors of the rice lift up the oak notes of the Rioja.

Score: I’ve got to say, this was a great pick.  I’m a genius.  Give it a 90.

Oh yeah…

I almost forgot…

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The fortune cookie brings out a creaminess in the wine that is just rad.

Now that’s what I call good fortune.

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... in bed.

Stay Rad,

Jeff

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2 Responses to “So long, Sam Wo: The Best Little Secret Everybody Knew About”

  1. Marcello B. Says:

    Your dad sounds really dope. Does he still look like Ned Flanders?
    Marcello

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