During a recent brunch with friends at Gjusta, we got to chatting about heading out to get some Dim Sum (or try some other restaurant in the SGV) when someone brought up the question of, “Well where do you go to get Hong Kong food? Charsiu and roast duck and stuff?” Which stumped us. I don’t know enough great places, and haven’t seen much chatter about Hong Kong / Cantonese BBQ / dishes from our trusted FTCers. But I then suddenly felt this wistful nostalgia for Sam Woo BBQ.
I remember some of the earliest bookmarks I made when I joined our old board, was discovering even older threads from some of our OG FTCers chatting about this oddly named place called “Sam Woo.” I remember first thinking, “Who’s Sam Woo? A famous Chinese chef?” Our OG Hounds like @chandavkl @ipsedixit Servorg, Das Ubergeek, @kevin eatdrinknbmerry @secretasianman BarryC @raytamsgv and others were talking about this place and what to order.
When I finally made it out, it was tasty, and a surprise for my taste buds back then, trying Hong Kong Cantonese Roast Duck for the first time, or Wonton Lo Mein. But it kind of drifted off in the background. I haven’t been to Sam Woo in years (I don’t even remember the last time I went, that’s how long it’s been!). But with our friend’s question, it felt like a good chance to visit Sam Woo BBQ again and see what it’s like.
There are numerous Sam Woo BBQ branches, but many have closed down. I have no idea which ones are legit (@chandavkl @ipsedixit @secretasianman @JeetKuneBao and the rest of our SGV experts please chime in!), but we felt the one we used to go to in the giant 99 Ranch Market / Focus Plaza was a safe one to try.
Walking in, we saw the familiar Roasted BBQ rack where the various Roasted Ducks, Chickens and Pigs reside.
Sauteed Snow Pea Leaf with Garlic:
I miss Sauteed Chinese Vegetables with a good wok hei. I wish this were more prevalent on the Westside. The Sauteed Snow Pea Leaves with Garlic were fantastic, tender, fragrant from the Garlic and a gorgeous emerald green.
Three Delicacy Combination Platter - BBQ Pork (Charsiu), Soy Sauce Chicken, Roast Duck:
Sam Woo allows you to choose an entire plate of the various Hong Kong BBQ meats (1 selection), or you can choose 2 different meats, or 3. After the absurdly delicious Hong Kong BBQ we had at Ming Kee BBQ (thanks again @beefnoguy @JeetKuneBao), how does Sam Woo compare?
The BBQ Pork (Charsiu) tastes very familiar: It is lean, slightly chewy and sweet. The fatty bits help to balance the lean, but they are overly fatty. But after having Ming Kee’s BBQ Pork Neck, there is no comparison (it is simply in another stratosphere).
Soy Sauce Chicken:
Their Soy Sauce Chicken is better: It’s very tender and juicy and not overcooked at all. In fact, when dabbing a bit of that Green Onion, Garlic & Ginger Sauce (that comes with it), it tastes just as good as the $85 version we had at Majordomo recently (sans the flavored Rice). But the flaw with this Soy Sauce Chicken is that the Soy Sauce flavor didn’t permeate the meat, like it did at Ming Kee (what @beefnoguy loves about that place).
Sam Woo’s Roast Duck tastes very fresh (roasted that morning) and is juicy and has good flavoring / seasoning, but the skin wasn’t crisp. Which is unfortunate because that’s one of the most endearing and delicious qualities we love in a good Roast Duck. Ming Kee’s version had crisped skin which made all the difference. But beyond that, the actual flavor of the Roast Duck at Sam Woo was fine and tasty.
On another visit for dinner, bringing our friends (and the one who asked us in the first place), we started with…
Wonton Noodle Soup:
The plump Wontons are tasty with the bits of Marinated Ground Pork and Shrimp. The Wonton Broth is light, warming and tastes of Chicken and Pork, lightly seasoned.
I love the Cantonese / Hong Kong Egg Noodles! They are thin, slightly egg-y in taste and just work well with this Broth.
Two Delicacy Combination Platter - Roast Duck & Roast Pork:
Their Roast Duck this evening was about the same as our last visit: Fresh-tasting, juicy, but the Duck skin was soft (not crisp). The actual Duck flavors were fine though, and the dab of the Plum Sauce was delicious.
Ong Choy with Bean Curd Paste:
Ever since reading that recommendation on our old board from @ipsedixit about Ong Choy, I’ve never forgotten to order it if I see it on a menu. Sam Woo’s Sauteed Ong Choy with Bean Curd Paste arrives piping hot, fresh out of the fiery wok, and you can taste that “breath of the wok” (wok hei). It is perfectly cooked through, tender, with a little bit of vibrant snap in the Ong Choy and that Bean Curd Sauce gives it this nice umami back note. Delicious.
Deep Fried Squid with Spicy Pepper Salt:
We wanted to order the Pork Chop version, but one of our friends really wanted some Squid, so we tried this one instead. The one strange part was how breaded the Squid were: The pieces looked more like “Fried Fish Fillet” instead of “Fried Squid” that I was expecting. Biting into it, the crunchy batter gives way to tender, but slightly chewy Squid within. There’s a good dose of Salt & Pepper and bits of Green Onion. It was tasty in small doses, but felt too oily.
Spare Ribs with Bitter Melon:
I love Bitter Melon: The inherent bitterness is a nice departure from most cooked veggie dishes, and Sam Woo’s version incorporates that classic Cantonese Black Bean Sauce and tender meaty morsels of Pork Spare Ribs.
Salted Fish and Chicken Fried Rice:
We couldn’t go to Sam Woo and not try their old-school Fried Rice! The Salted Fish and Chicken Fried Rice is pungent, it’s lightly briny (in a good way) from the Salted Fish, and then you get bits of Chicken mixed in with the Peas, Green Onions, Eggs with the Rice.
There is real wok hei here, and it’s delicious! But after having @ipsedixit’s recommended Dragon Beaux Fried Rice, it’s kind of hard to see past it. But still, Sam Woo’s Salted Fish & Chicken Fried Rice is crave-worthy and delicious, and one of our friends who had never had this before, absolutely loved it (compared to the “Fried Rice” we usually get on the Westside).
Deep Fried Crispy Chicken (Half):
I love that old-school Hong Kong Cantonese-style Deep Fried Crispy Chicken, so we were excited to order one here. (You can order a Half or Whole Chicken for this dish.) It arrives with Shrimp Chips, and just look at that golden-brown skin!
The Chicken Breast meat is a bit overcooked and dryish, but the Fried Chicken Skin is still very crispy. The Chicken Leg & Thigh portions are juicy and perfect, along with that crisped Chicken Skin. So good! So it’s a bit hit-or-miss, but with all the pieces having Crispy Chicken Skin, the dark meat being perfect, and with it being only $9.95, it’s fine for us.
Seafood Chow Mein:
Unlike a lot of the “Chow Mein” found around the city, Hong Kong Cantonese style Chow Mein usually involves thin Egg Noodles, and they pan-sear / fry(?) it to a crispy, crunchy texture! Which means it’s just awesome!
I love a good Cantonese Chow Mein, and Sam Woo’s Seafood Chow Mein hit the spot for us: The crunchy, Egg Noodles, with that delicious, gravy-like Sauce, some tender Shrimp, Fish and Squid and Bok Choy. A great finisher.
3rd follow-up visit:
Two Delicacy Combination Platter - Roast Duck & Roast Pork:
In a foolhardy quest to see if it was an off-day or just consistency issues, we wanted to see if their Roast Duck was better earlier in the day. Sadly, it is about the same: Still tasting very fresh and moist, but lacking crispy Duck skin. Darn. But it still has good flavor and we enjoyed it with the sweet Plum Sauce.
Their Roast Pork is about the same, meaning it was solid: Lightly crunchy skin, lightly seasoned Pork underneath.
Pork Chop with Spicy Pepper Salt:
MUCH better! Sam Woo’s Pork Chop with Spicy Pepper Salt is much better than their Squid version (which was overly breaded). The Pork Chops are meaty, lightly spicy from the chopped Chilies and just delicious with the Salt, Pepper and Green Onions. So good with some Steamed Rice!
Pork with Preserved Egg Porridge:
Sam Woo’s Congee isn’t overly thick (a good thing), and the bits of lean Pork with the Thousand Year Old Egg and some Ginger and Green Onions tastes nourishing and warming and a nice way to start your day (I wish I had this as a Breakfast option on the Westside!).
If you wanted an example of old-school Chinese restaurant service efficiency, Sam Woo might be a good case study: Watching the 2 or 3 servers take your orders, deliver food, tea and drinks, bus all the tables in the restaurant and seat the next round of guests is pretty awesome. This is not “great” service for American standards, but it’s efficient and they turn over tables fast without being unruly or rude.
In the end, Sam Woo BBQ is working class food (according to my friend from Hong Kong). This is not fancy, nor is it amazing. After having experienced stunning Hong Kong BBQ at Ming Kee, Sam Woo just doesn’t compare. The Fried Rice at Dragon Beaux is the stuff legends are made out of.
But Sam Woo does some things right: Their Sauteed Snow Pea Leaves or Ong Choy (with Garlic or Bean Curd Paste) are tasty. I really liked their Salted Fish & Chicken Fried Rice. Their Deep Fried Crispy Chicken (dark meat) is delicious and their Pork Chop with Spicy Salt & Pepper is great as well. If you want Wonton Noodle Soup or Chow Mein this seems fine here as well.
Sam Woo isn’t worth a drive from the Westside, nor any long distance, but sometimes if you’re craving Old School Hong Kong / Cantonese food with a kitchen that still can belt out the breath of the wok? Sam Woo BBQ is just fine.
(On a side note, our friend from Hong Kong noted this type of food isn’t very popular with the younger generation in the states, and thinks Hong Kong food like this is dying off. Which makes me really sad.)
Sam Woo BBQ
(Inside the giant 99 Ranch Supermarket / Focus Plaza complex.)
140 W. Valley Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Tel: (626) 572-8418