You know those restaurants where reservations are booked out months in advance and you’ll be lucky to even get through the phone line to speak to someone? So the wait is pretty much in terms of months before you get to the restaurant and finally get to eat there. Sam Wo isn’t one of those restaurants, but for us the wait to eat there was in terms of years, and we’re not exaggerating.
A first heard about Sam Wo when she was in San Francisco about 3 years ago, and was with a group of angmohs who put a lot of emphasis on how hygienic a restaurant looked, so when they saw what Sam Wo looked like there was no chance they were going to eat there.
When A returned to Singapore she told K about this awesome place in San Francisco’s Chinatown that she never got a chance to try called Sam Wo, so a year later when he was in San Francisco, he was determined to find this restaurant. He looked all over Chinatown, in all the little streets and alleyways, but couldn’t find any restaurant called Sam Wo. There was a restaurant called San He (in Chinese characters), but it looked too dodgy to possibly be the one A was gushing about. Turns out, that restaurant, San He, was the Sam Wo A was talking about. ‘He’ in Cantonese is pronounced ‘wo’. As a result, K also left San Francisco without eating at Sam Wo. This was just over 2 years ago.
Cut to the year 2010. A and K are both in San Francisco again. This time round, there’s nothing that will stop them from their quest to eat at Sam Wo. Their first meal in San Francisco had to be Sam Wo, and nothing else.
Sam Wo is a health inspector’s worst nightmare. It’s housed in a building that looks like it’s falling apart, and nothing in it looks like it’s ever been cleaned. The pot of chili sauce sitting at every table looks like that piece of mouldy cheese sitting in the carpark in that movie ‘Diary of a wimpy kid’, left behind over the years, too disgusting to even pick up and throw away. Well, now we’re exaggerating, but you get the idea. It’s no wonder that A’s angmoh friends flat out refused to eat at Sam Wo when they saw the state of the restaurant.
Service is virtually non-existent in Sam Wo. The lone Chinese lady working the floor hardly ever says a word, and probably has it written in her contract that she does not want to smile or engage her customers in small talk at all. When she comes to your table you just feel her presence and there’ll be this awkward silence. Her face is perpetually sullen and blank as you order, and once you’re done she leaves as quietly as she came. There’s a hilarious little pulley system that’s so primitive, but so ingenious. When the food is ready to be served, the kitchen loads the dishes on the tray, and the server pulls a rope to bring the tray up to the second floor. We’ve seen mechanized versions of this in Chinese restaurants in London, but this manual version was seriously entertaining.
We’ve read reviews online about this marinated pork wrapped in rice flour that is a die die must try dish in Sam Wo. To be honest, when it came it looked slightly disappointing. We have a variation of this dish all the time in dim sum restaurants, and it’s basically char siew wrapped in cheong fun skin. Really good restaurants like Hakkasan (in London) use cheong fun that is translucent to the point that you can see the filling inside very clearly. What was in front of us looked like it was an attempt at that dish. Problem is, the meat looked dry and the cheong fun skin was so thick it looked like something had gone seriously wrong.
We took a bite, and our faces just lit up. This tasted incredible. Yes, the char siew wasn’t moist and juicy, and yes, the cheong fun was thick and not at all delicate, but we’re comparing apples and oranges here. This dish served at Sam Wo is not pretending to be that dim sum dish we’re all so familiar with. It’s a completely different dish altogether, and it was damn good. We don’t usually do repeat orders of a dish at restaurants (unless it’s dim sum), but we had to order another round of this dish. It was so good.
For some strange reason, A decided to order a Singapore Fried Noodle as her main. This is one dish we see all the time in Chinese restaurants around the world, and is something no self-respecting Singaporean will approve of, because there is no such dish in Singapore. We have lots of fried noodle dishes around, but never a dish called Singapore Fried Noodles. What the world seems to think is our national dish is basically fried noodles with curry powder, what a joke. Having said that, the Singapore Fried Noodle in Sam Wo is pretty decent. There’s a nice wok hei, a sign that the noodles have been fried over a very strong flame. (Well either that, or it could be that the noodles have been fried in a wok that’s never been cleaned, so it has years of accumulated burnt bits, but I’m sure that’s not the case…..right?)
K’s main was a beef brisket noodles. This came with practically an entire cow’s worth of beef brisket, and it was quite tender, though texturally it was slightly too mushy, and not very appealing after a while. The soup was disappointingly flat, with hardly any flavour at all, and the noodles were just average.
Was it worth the wait? Well, yes and no. We loved the cheong fun appetizer (easily 7.5/10), but the mains weren’t anything to scream about. We wanted so desperately to like this place, but it seems they don’t do themselves any favours with their appearance and service, and the food is just slightly above average overall.