Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why Did'ja Do It to Me Sam Woo? My Restaurant Manifesto

For the 7+ hour drive down to Southern California from Northern California, my family has designated certain pitstops as places we "always" stop, even if we don't need to fill up on gas or go to the restroom. One pitstop is the fast food haven in Lost Hills, and the other one is Sam Woo in San Gabriel. The Sam Woo that acts as our rest-stop, is not from the Sam Woo Seafood Restaurant lineage (referred to "Sam Woo-bourgeoisie," because it is generally priced around $10/entreé), but it is the Sam Woo BBQ Restaurant (referred to "Sam Woo-proletariat," because it is priced around $5/entreé), or as I like to call it, "the Sam Woo for the working, blue-collar people."

When I recently drove down to visit my parents, I was accompanied by a friend from the East Coast who had eaten in the Monterey Park/San Gabriel area before. He told me before, that Southern California is "nirvana" or "Garden of Eden" for a Chinese-food lover. As we slowly crept our way through the hellish bowels of Los Angeles traffic, he wanted me to suggest a cheap and delicious place we could grab a quick Chinese meal. I was pretty confident that Sam Woo would deliver on his expectations.

When we finally arrived, we were physically exhausted, irritable, and our buttocks were sore and tense from sitting in bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic. Both of us were expecting a meal to "satisfy the masses."

When we were seated, I was surprised by the lack of patrons in the restaurant. I remember there was always a line with large families waiting for seats, and how the old grandparent-types would sit in the waiting area reading their daily newspapers. That day, the restaurant wasn't even half full. But when I looked around, I was happy to see the same waiter there (he must have been working there for about ten years), and also I was overjoyed to see that prices hadn't changed either. $4-5 bucks for choice entreés? They need to move a Sam Woo up to the Bay Area!

Since my friend was the driver, I let him call the shots (I let him order, with only minimal interference).

Our first dish of coeng ching tsai arrived in a monstrous looking mound. Because I had been pandering to my friend's belief that Monterey Park was the "promised land," I tried to describe the faults in the dish as an unusual deviation. But as soon as I tasted it, I realized there were no redeeming qualities to the pile of flaccid, slimy, and fibrous mash.

Okay. Maybe our pent-up road rage was causing us to be easily disgruntled. "Give it another chance," I pleaded to both him and myself.

Ten minutes after the coeng ching tsai had arrived, the next dish hit the table. I had more of a role in ordering the hi shen tsow mein (seafood chow mein), thus, it felt like a steel-semi truck of disappointment hit me in my gut when I saw the way the dish looked. The noodles were mangled and mottled up like a hairball made of greasy orange yarn. See, when my Dad ordered the "same" dish from Sam Woo, I remember decoratively-quartered leaves of baby bok choy gracing a symettrical and crispy pan-fried cake of golden egg noodles. I remember huge pieces of shrimp, white fish, scallops, and squid. I also remember that the sauce perfectly coated the noodles, so as not to ruin the crispiness of fried noodles, but to provide a harmonious balance of flavor and texture.

Our hi shen tsow mein looked like the waiter gave us a dish that an unsatisfied guest had sent back, and the cooks just re-fried the whole thing together again for the next people who were unfortunate enough to order the same thing--us. There were no crispy noodles. None. There was no bright bok choy. None. Just oily, soggy noodles and sporadic bites of seafood.

After waiting for fifteen minutes, we thought that the waiter forgot to write down our final order. We were about to leave and pay our bill, when he came rushing out with our plate of jow yen yo yee (deep-fried and salted squid). This is actually something that I didn't have a lot of experience with eating or ordering, so I didn't have very high expectations. However, my friend did. One bite, and he spit back into his napkin. "This dish is not worth eating, let's pay the bill and go now," he resignedly grunted.

"Wait a minute, I'm not going to pay for a dish and only have you eat one bite!" I angrily retorted, as I shoved an entire fried fritter into my mouth.

Although the jow yen yo yee was colorfully presented and looked delicious, the taste was something else. Stale oil permeated the batter-coating and made it taste like a musty closet--complete with the strange moth ball aroma. Plus, they took the "yen" (salt) part of the recipe to a new extreme. It was so salty, I could feel my mouth reflexively and unconsciously puckering, as if trying to expel what was inside of it.

After we paid the bill and began to exit the shopping plaza where Sam Woo was located, my friend asked me whether I would go back again.

Would I go back again? Oh hayelll yea! It's Sam Woo! So the food was bad one day, no big deal. No "invisible hand" will ever drive me away from Sam Woo. It's given me too many great memories, full bellies, and cheap meals for me to ever change my ideology.


  1. PE, as with any restaurant you go to, food is going to be subjective and there could've been a chef-change since you're last visit. i'm assuming you went to the one in the focus shopping plaza on del mar/valley. if it's that one, that place gets great business.

    The hoi-sin chow mein looked like it had a bad hair day. like seriously. to be safe in the future, make sure you say "hoi sin chow mein - leung mein wong" (cantonese) or "liang mian hwang" (mandarin). this tells the chefs to fry the noodles till their crispy, and then pouring the gravy on top. that way you can mix it up yourself. even so, i don't know why they stir fried that - it looks awful.

    happy holidays.

  2. Hi Eat, Drink, & Be Merry! Yes, I generally go to the Sam Woo in the Focus Plaza, and I've waited in enough lines to agree with you, that it gets a massive amount of customer traffic.

    As for my meal, I seriously don't know what went wrong that day. It was a total departure from every other experience that I have had there.

    Thank you for the suggestion about how to order hi shen tsow mein, I probably forgot to tell the waiter that day.

    Thanks for your kind holiday wishes, I also hope you have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  3. Hi PE, Happy Holiday greetings from thejesuitgourmet!

    This post comes to me as very spiritual--sounds like there is someone who does not give up on us no matter how often we mess up our life...hahaha.

    Happy New Year!

  4. Passionate,

    Sigh...hopefully this isn't a trend. The Sam Woo Take-out counter here in Irvine has slipped so far down in the last few years that I've resorted to Panda Express which is around the corner...YES! I SAID PANDA *FREAKIN'* EXPRESS IS BETTER THAN SAM WOO'S TAKEOUT COUNTER in IRVINE! It's a shame...the restaurant proper (bourgeois or proletariat) is probably better for dinner, but I haven't been back since having a disappointing dim sum lunch there a few months ago.

    SO SAD...SO VERY SAD. Sam Woo used to be my one constant...but I guess things change.

  5. Hello Joseph! Thank you for the kind holiday wishes! I also send my best to you and your family (and your fellow Jesuit Gourmets)! I agree with your assessment--forgiveness is key. But I can't help but to wish that this time, Jesus could have turned my "water" (my bad meal) into "wine"!

    Hi ElmoMonster! Whoa! Panda Express?? That is a drastic move! You must have eaten something "terrible-bad" for you to be driven into the flabby arms of Panda Express! I hope that Sam Woo is just on some "bad times" and that things will look up soon. I don't want this change to be permanent.

  6. Hi PE - Wow, that's bit of a long drive for what I consider to be a "greasey spoon", there are so many really great choices in that area, other then Sam Woo Barbecue.

  7. I second that Kirk, but going to Sam Woo after the "long road-trip to Southern California" is a family-tradition that was started by my Dad, so it makes it hard for me to change my ways. Unfortunately, I keep remembering Sam Woo as being much better than it really is. . . So it's a feedback effect!

  8. hi there,

    you have an excellent blog - descriptive, simple design & great pix. in fact, we'd like to have you on our site ( and would be flattered if you would link to us on yours. please let me know if you 're interested:

  9. Thank you Ligaya! I checked out the Yelp site, and it is very cool! I read some SF restaurant reviews, and they were right on the money. I'll definitely put a link to your page Ligaya, and will be visiting in the future for more reviews.

  10. For the 7+ hour drive down to Southern California from Northern California, my family has designated certain pitstops as places we "always" stop, even if we don't need to fill up on gas or go to the restroom.

    california dui


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