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San Francisco bids farewell to beloved Sam Wo Restaurant

Fans flock to the Chinatown eatery on its closing day to revel one last time in the signature food, decaying architecture and memories of a rude waiter.

April 21, 2012|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Fans crowd into the aging Sam Wo Restaurant one last time on its closing day. A Chinatown fixture for more than a century, it is shutting down because the owner says it would be too costly to to bring up to city codes.
Fans crowd into the aging Sam Wo Restaurant one last time on its closing day.… (Eric Risberg, Associated…)

SAN FRANCISCO — Its decaying architecture, fluorescent lighting and kitchen prep sink wedged next to a toilet have served as fodder for a ribbing by comedian Conan O'Brien. Its 3 a.m. closing time made it a favorite for late-night club hoppers

But most of all, the Sam Wo Restaurant in the heart of Chinatown was a haven for unassuming regulars and curious tourists — who for decades streamed through the cramped kitchen and up a narrow staircase to the tiny second- and third-floor dining rooms served by a dumbwaiter.

On Friday, they came to say farewell to a more-than-century-old institution that had simply gotten too old.

David Ho, who has owned Sam Wo for the past 30 years, revealed this week that he could not afford to bring the building, with its precarious concrete balcony and idiosyncratic kitchen, up to health and safety standards. Come Saturday, the doors will be closed for good. The owners plan to appeal the health department's findings at a hearing next week, but they concede that reopening could prove too costly.

Fans massed at lunchtime Friday like roaches on a dirty counter, some driving for hours for a final taste of Sam Wo's signature chow fun, jook and barbecue pork rice noodle rolls.

"The news started circulating in the office, and everybody just freaked out. What about the rolls?" said Will Traer, 27, of San Francisco, who waited in a snaking line with co-worker Cuong Leung, 35.

Leung started eating at Sam Wo as a teen. Over the last five years, he and his financial district office mates have made the restaurant on Washington Street near Grant Avenue a twice-monthly ritual.

"Cheap eats, good food," said Leung, who favors the scrambled eggs on beef chow fun, house noodles and fried rice. "You can't really go wrong."

The restaurant is believed to be the oldest in Chinatown — some say it was founded after the 1906 earthquake; others claim it opened earlier. In the 1950s, it became a hangout for Beat poets.

Edsel Ford Fung became the keystone of restaurant lore when he was dubbed "the world's rudest waiter." Fung, who died in 1984, was memorialized along with the restaurant in San Francisco author Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City." The waiter was a regular feature in the writings of late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen.

Shirley Fong-Torres, a chef, writer and Chinatown restaurant tour guide, wrote in her 2008 book, "The Woman Who Ate Chinatown," that customers "came to see and be verbally abused by Edsel."

"He did not necessarily bring you what you ordered, which he sometimes scribbled down while smoking a cigarette," wrote Fong-Torres, who died last year. "He was notorious for flirting with girls, rudely criticizing customers and reminding people about tipping him."

Vic Lim, 67, a retired optometrist from El Cerrito who ate his first meal at Sam Wo's as a 2-year-old, said Friday that "Ed wasn't rude. He was actually certifiably crazy. He didn't act that strange to locals, but the tourists got to him after a while."

Lim happened to be standing in line behind Jennifer Hong, 54, a retired stockbroker who has been a regular since 1970.

"I heard it on the news and I had to come one last time," said Hong, who includes the eatery on her list of musts for visiting friends and family — along with the Golden Gate Bridge and Japanese Tea Gardens.

"Even though it's dirty and the place is small, it's a tradition," she said. "It's real authentic Chinese food, where the waiter's mean and the cook is mean. They don't have all day to explain the menu to you."

Hong was a tad gruff herself Friday. She chastised two women after they joined their friends in line ahead of her. And she expressed disdain for a TV reporter's decision to interview a pretty young blond, griping that longtime regulars may not be as easy on the eyes but that they know more.

She whispered dismissively after eavesdropping on the interview. "Sweet and sour pork?" she said of the young woman's proclaimed favorite. "Come on. If I ordered that they'd probably hit me with a pan."

But mostly it was a melancholy love fest for Sam Wo fans.

Jacob Pickering-Esquibel, 30, and his father, 60-year-old Michael Esquibel, heard about the closure on the morning news. By 9:45 they had left their San Jose photo studio for a final Sam Wo field trip.

They ate with a five-decade regular they met in line.

As the day wore on, mournful comments piled up on Yelp and other online forums. Many recalled bringing their own booze for boisterous late-night gatherings on the third floor, which invariably included shenanigans with the dumbwaiter.

Most lamented the loss of another old-time San Francisco institution, warts and all.

lee.romney@latimes.com

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