813 Washington St, San Francisco, CA | Directions 9410837.795051 -122.406729
Neighborhoods: Chinatown, Northeast
Elegant in its Simplicity – I discovered Sam Wo restaurant by accident over 20 years ago. We were tourists on foot and hungry in China Town, wandering the main streets past glittering restaurants with huge, carved doors and massive, gilded lions, declining numerous invitations from tuxedo-clad doormen to taste their characteristically expensive fare. On a whim, I choose to walk down a hill on one of the less traveled streets where the sidewalk was full of crates. By mere chance, I came across an open door. It was simple and old, without ornamentation. I looked in and saw half a dozen cooks quickly moving vegetables, meat and noodles back and forth in woks on a gas stove. There were bits and pieces of vegetables all over the floor and a menu display case on the outside wall next to the door, but nowhere was there any sign indicating it was a restaurant. Moreover, the "menu" in the case consisted of merely a bunch of characters in simplified Chinese script with no English translations; the only indicator of an actual restaurant being the dollar signs and some prices next to each entry on the menu. I entered the kitchen and tried to ask if it was a restaurant, but nobody spoke English. A small, older man grabbed my forearm and enthusiastically directed me to the top floor of the establishment, which was a narrow, dimly lit room with small wooden tables and benches. Rays of light pierced the wooden shutters over the windows at the front of the room, illuminating the considerable dust that floated in the air. Only three other patrons dined in the restaurant that afternoon. We were given menus on which all the food appeared only in Chinese. Since each item was priced at only $1.25 to $1.75, I pointed to three of them, assuming they would be small. The little old lady waitress, who also spoke no English, gesticulated wildly as if to stop me, but I insisted by stabbing each menu item with my finger. Flustered, she gave up. A short time after she served us tea and deep fried noodles, a bell rang and the old lady sent the dumb waiter down to the kitchen again. She brought it up twice with more food than you could imagine and more food than we could consume. The food was outstanding and some of the best authentic Chinese food we'd ever had. As I used to report on the duty log in the Corps, it was "sufficient in both quantity and quality." I have made it a point to return to Sam Wo Restaurant every time I have visited SF since. Of course, over the years they have obtained a sign, put their menu partially in English, and hired some English-speaking employees. The prices of the items have also increased, but the food is great and they are still the best deal in town. If you get a chance, you have to try this place. Highly recommended.
Most unique and best place ever – My husband and I accidently found this. We were there for a seminar and just walking around. Decided to give this a try. The sign said it is a hundred years old and we wanted to feel the real Chinatown. You walk in through the kitchen, and then up very narrow stairs to the 3rd floor where there are about 8 small old wooden tables and chairs. We choose the table near the open window that overlooks the streets. It was in January and we were cold, so I left my coat and hats and gloves on, but it was a fun site to sit. I ordered the Chinese chicken salad. It was the most unique salad I ever ate and soooo delicious. I think it had some kind of pickled vegtables on it and it tasted like there might be cinnamon in it too. I went crazy over it. It is hugh and the waitress said it is too much for one person - but the flavor was so enticing I couldn't stop and I ate the whole thing! My husband had some soups which he loved and also ate it all. I went absolutly nuts over the food and became obsessed with needing to eat there and have their Chinese chicken salad every day we were in San Francisco. It was like I was addicted to it. I loved it so much that we decided to come back the next weekend again. So we booked plane flights the very next weekend from Los Angeles and stayed in the same hotel - within walking distance - of Sam Wo's restaurant.
The funny thing is when we came back the next weekend, and ordered Chinese Chicken salad, it came without any dressing or toppings and at first I was disappointed in the flavor but then realized they left something off. When I asked the waitress about it she at first denied that there was something wrong - but I had to insist - so she sent it back down on that funny "dumb waiter" from the 3rd floor to the kitchen, as she yelled to them in Chinese, and then all of a sudden we heard laughing and more laughing and lots of loud talking and chattering from the kitchen when the cooks realized that they left off the most important ingredients! So I got it back made the right way - and the waitress couldn't stop laughing the whole time. The waitress was a Chinese college student working her way through school.
The hotel we stayed at at the time was called the Sheraton, but it got bought out and is now the Hilton San Francisco Financial District, which is within walking distance of all of Chinatown and only 3 blocks away from Sam Wo's. We have not been back yet but are planning on doing it this year. It has been about 5 or 6 years. There is a park accross the street from the hotel where the Chinese people congregate for games and there was an awesome "crafts market" or whatever you call it with lots of arts and things for sale on the weekends.
We took the bart from the airport and just walked with our rolling suitcases about 6 blocks to the hotel. It was so easy. This was a perfect location because we even walked to the embarkadero and Giradellies chocolate factory.
What can I say other than, “Sam Who is absolutely awesome!” This place is a true hole in the wall by definition. You have to walk through a kitchen an up a narrow stairwell just to get to the seating area, it’s an experience in itself.
Prices are ridiculously cheap, and portions are exceptionally large! For $10 you can feed two people with leftovers to spare. They are open until 4:00am EVERYDAY and about a 10 minute walk from North Beach. Seriously, if you are ever in Chinatown and looking for a dirty little whole in the wall with authentic Chinese eats, check this place out you will not be disappointed.
Oh, did I mention it is bring your own beer! How can you not love this place??
Funniest Place for Chinese food! – We have been to Sam Wo's twice in the last 25 years. Once by accident and the other on purpose when we needed a fix from the surly, overworked waitress.
I know this does not sound like much of an endorsement, but if you go to Sam Wo's with a few bucks in your pocket and a hungry tummy, you'll get decent food for a low price.
If you go looking for high-brow service, stay away.
On our last visit, the harried waitress kept shreiking "broccoli chicken, who order broccoli chicken?" The smart patron eventually raised his or her hand and took the broccoli chicken even if it was not what they ordered, because who knows when you might get your actual order.
Go to Sam Wo's with a sense of humor and a lot of patience. We were chuckling and having a grand time as other patrons were leaving in a huff, not seeing the humor of the situation.
We paid for the dinner of two seriously broke Brits who chose the place for the low prices.
On our first visit umpteen years ago, the service was no better but our memories are just as clear, especially of the waitress who smacked my husband and then thought it hysterical.
We love Sam Wo's and you should too!
ONLY GET THE WON TON SOUP AND PORK NOODLE ROLL! – I have two things to say: 1) Pork Noodle Roll 2) Won Ton Soup. No other chinese restaurant makes pork noodle roll. It is sweet bbq chinese pork with cilantro rolled up into a cold rice noodle and sliced. You dip it into hot mustard sauce and it melts in your mouth. It is my most favorite treat in the world. They used to make it only for lunch so I would make any excuse to drive the 30 miles from Walnut Creek so I could get it. Now it is served anytime.
The won ton soup broth and pork won tons are the most delicious I have ever eaten. If you order shrimp won ton soup it isn't shrimp in the won tons, the shrimps are placed floating on top of the broth and pork won tons. All the won ton soups are the same broth and pork won tons it is just the specific thing you order that is put on top like bbq pork strips, shrimp, etc. There is no better won ton soup in the world.
If you go there don't get the lame spring rolls or other typical chinese fair you can get anywher get these two menu choices and you will become a believer too.
And when you leave tell the cooks how delicious it was!
Most bizarre Chinese restaurant (and not in a good way) – By far, it was the most bizarre restaurant we have ever been to. The ambiance is unpleasant and the food is borderline edible. It's really a miracle that this restaurant survived thus far. We were somewhat amused by the seemingly overworked lone waitress and would never come back unless there is a need to punish our children :)
Cheap, Edible and Oh-So-SF – This is Chinatown, and this restaurant is not a tourist trap at all!
I doubt that tourists would brave these conditions, it is far too funky for the Denny's crowd.
This is the place that late night North Beach beat/hip/poor/struggling/desperate and hungry types have frequented for many many years, just to stay alive! Where else can you eat for $3!
It's authentic beat/psychedelic/whatever as far back as anyone can recall. I have never seen any Chinese people eating there, however---never a good sign.
The wait people have always been a show unto themselves, gruffly telling you what to order: Roseanne- Barr- only- Chinese. These days the waitress/waiters are more mild mannered, but still quirky.
Order the shrimp and broccoli over rice, it's consistently good AND cheap. The won ton soup is pretty iffy the last several years. Never order anything beef, or sweet and sour anything. Avoid the dessert even if it's free. If you have plenty of $$ and want great food, go elsewhere.
In short, the place is so unique it warrants a visit. You'll never forget it! We never fail to go there when in SF, if only to reminisce about the 60's when we relied on Sam Wo for our very survival!
Very Traditional and Cheap! – This is the only place you will find it authentic... Why? They impressed me by continuing to use the very old and traditional northeastern Chinese restaurants' method of #1 Having the chef cooking right where you walk in, #2 Having waiters and waitresses communicating from the 3rd and 2nd floor where the customers sit, #3 Having the wooden tables and chairs that are nowadays replaced by the modern furnitures in most other restaurants, #4 They still use the robe elevators for sending orders down to the 1st floor and sending food back up with a ring of a bell. #5 They have the best beef thick rice noodles, the chef kept it very original and thats why I would order it every time I go. If you choose to sit on the 3rd floor, you pick the side window view, it allows you to enjoy the interaction of the busy chinatown street. I was born and raised in China, and it brings me back those old Chinese traditional restaurants... the memory of the childhood. P.S. They kept it traditional enough... that... they don't take any card forms... cash only!
Open Late Night – We were walking around Chinatown at 10:00 p.m. trying to find an open restaurant and stumbled upon Sam Wo's. What a trip. They say they've been open for 100 years, well I believe it from the condition of the restaurant. But who cares about the atmosphere if the food is good? And it was. And cheap. I was more amazed at the diversity of the customers; ranging from 20 somethings to senior citizens. Go figure that this no frills restaurant attracts so many different folks.
Best chinese food in SF! – This place is a straight hole in the wall. You walk in through the kitchen and walk upstairs to be seated. The incredibly low prices is the first thing you'll notice when you open the menu. I would say that everything on the menu is good. The chow mein, chow fun, fried rice, meats, soups, noodle soups... you name it. It's all pretty good. It opens till 3 in the morning everyday. Very good spot to go to after the club. This is real authentic chinese food that is surprisingly not greasy as most other places. Do not come here expecting high customer service because you'll be disappointed. Highly recommended.
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