It is with great sadness that I respond to the demise of Sam Wo, the iconic San Francisco hole-in-the-wall restaurant. ---
For more than 100 years, Sam Wo has been serving up cheap food at 813 Washington Street (between Grant Street and Waverly Place). Unfortunately, the restaurant was shut down Friday by the San Francisco Department of Public Health due to a number of complaints including "violations ranging from employees not washing their hands and contaminating food to rodent feces in the kitchen and improper food storage."
Well, what's a few rodent feces among friends? I have only the fondest memories of Sam Wo. It was back in 2002 when, during a carefully planned trip to San Francisco, my then-boyfriend and I encountered an unexpected return-flight delay, and we had to extend our hotel stay by a couple of extra nights. The airline cheerfully refused to chip in.
Now, by San Francisco standards, the Beresford has very reasonable rates for a moderately clean hotel in a decently non-scary neighborhood. But, as a couple of working-class yokels hailing from a flyover state, the extra $88 per night just about broke our budget.
While waiting for our flight back to Salt Lake International, we spent the days wandering forlornly about the city, seeking cheap entertainment wherever it could be found: reading books at City Lights, trudging through Golden Gate Park. The earlier hedonistic joy of our San Francisco vacation turned to abnegation and despair. Food became scarce, apart from the Beresford's complimentary continental breakfast consisting of cereal, melon cubes and reheated croissants.
In fact, had my boyfriend not been such a hipster, we might have starved to death. He had read of some 1950s-era beatnik who used to meet his opium-addicted friends at a Chinatown dive called Sam Wo.
Miraculously, Sam Wo was not only located within walking distance of our hotel, but also offered prices that were within our diminished budget. So, during those two desperate days, we ate all our meals there.
Patrons entered Sam Wo through the kitchen, and we ascended flights of stairs up to the third floor, where we were seated. The second floor seemed to be occupied by friends of the owner and other special customers. We were too late to have been served by Edsel Ford Fong, known as "the world's rudest waiter" -- who died in 1984 -- and unfortunately, the outside balcony was off-limits, even for cigarette addicts, due to the building's structural defects. In fact, the whole place was as rickety and decrepit as a carnival funhouse.
But still, the food was cheap, and we entertained ourselves watching servers bring up our orders from the ground-floor kitchen through a hand-pulled dumbwaiter. At the end of the meal, that dumbwaiter also served as the conduit via which our cash payment, attached to a clothespin, was delivered downstairs, and our pre-tip change was retrieved.
I'll never forget the "Chinese doughnut" -- a crispy, savory fry-bread that rivaled the deliciousness of any Mexican sopapilla or Mormon "scone." And the curry chicken may not have been excellent, but it was OK. It may or may not have contained rat feces -- but I suffered no ill effects afterward.
I'm sorry to see this San Francisco institution go.
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