1907: The Beginning
Sam Wo, built shortly after the 1906 earthquake at 813 Washington Street by three immigrant siblings from the village of Taishan, China, was famous for inexpensive barbecue pork rice noodle rolls and porridge called
jook until 3:00AM. Old timers remember when Chinatown generations ago was the destination after a night out for
siu yeh, Cantonese for late night meals popular in Hong Kong and South China. For many people, eating at Sam Wo grew into a family tradition. For others, the restaurant came to symbolize an important time in their lives.
The restaurant was probably best known as the workplace of Edsel Ford Fung, often called the
world’s rudest, worst, most insulting waiter. Fung would refuse to serve customers whose appearance he disliked and he would harass patrons that complained about mistaken orders. After his passing in 1984, he left a lasting impression for a generation of San Franciscans. Some of his signs from the Washington street eatery remain, such as those stating somewhat paradoxically for a Chinese restaurant, including
No Booze … No Jive, No Coffee, Milk, Soft Drinks, Fortune Cookies.
Even Late Night Star Conan O’Brien paid a visit to Sam Wo.
When the dive-y hole-in-the-wall closed in April 2012 after having its health permit suspended for sanitation issues and fire and building code violations, the family just could not afford the entire $400,000 to fix it.
30-year owner at Sam Wo, chef David Ho 60 (Edsel’s father was good friends with David’s grandfather) said he couldn’t even begin to imagine a new promising business model, when in the uphill struggle to reopen at the former site failed. When the first proposal attempt to restore the original location on Washington Street failed because of the cost and breakdown in dialog with the landlord, the Ho family, community leaders and new investors began their search campaign.
Upon registering Sam Wo Restaurant as a national trademark, the Ho family, along with businessmen Steven Lee and Jonathan Leong, founded Sam Wo Ventures, LLC. All were confident that Sam Wo will have renewed success if a new location can be found inside San Francisco Chinatown.
After a long three year search, they eventually landed the former Anna Bakery space at 713-715 Clay Street, across the street from Portsmouth Square and a few blocks from the Financial District. And in a serendipitous twist, a mezzanine and basement allowed the regime to recreate a version of Sam Wo’s three-story dynamic.
The new Sam Wo location is a few blocks from its former home — the rickety, decaying Washington Street building that prompted Herb Caen to once dub it the
skinniest Chinese restaurant in town — and directly next to another Chinatown gathering place, Portsmouth Square.
Ho’s daughter Julie, who at age 9 began joining the family at Sam Wo after school (helping out with food preparation, then waitressing, and became a supervisor at the restaurant), described the new restaurant materializing at 713 Clay Street as
I’m just excited because I grew up in Chinatown and I felt it was dying off and I’m hoping this will remind people of authentic Chinese food that is affordable and anyone can come eat, she said.
People came to this place as strangers and left as friends. Everyone is one big family and I want to see that again – in a grander scale.
The best part is that Sam Wo is a legacy restaurant and will able to revive itself in modern Chinatown, David Ho said in Cantonese.
It’s probably the only business built after the earthquake that remains to this day.
On October 21, 2015, the ribbon cutting of the new Sam Wo came with a lot of anticipation and excitement; it did not take long for Sam Wo to get busy.
On the morning after the restaurant’s grand opening ceremony, complete with politicians and proclamations, one of Chinatown’s most famous restaurants was quietly abuzz with diners stopping by for a late breakfast of jook, noodle soups and curiosity on its first day of business.
Sam Wo is back, San Francisco! Serving the same good ol’ home cooked Chinese American food as we have for over 100 years. Please come by and see us again.
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