Sam Woo is a chain of a dozen restaurants across Southern California, most of which specialize in Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine and Chinese “Bar-B-Q”. Chinese BBQ generally refers to char sui — marinated and glazed strips of pork shoulder usually cooked in vertical ovens until slightly charred and glistening crimson. Sam Woo also has Peking ducks hanging on hooks, soy-cooked chicken, spare ribs, some massive Chinese sausages, and other meaty offerings. Most of their restaurants (at least the ones I’ve been to) are divided into a casual dining room and a small take-out area for customers who just need a half-duck or hunk of BBQ pork or what-have-you. Generally speaking the chain offers no decor or specific ambiance to speak of, just a bare-bones yet comfortable dining room with zero attempt at atmosphere other than the clatter of dishes and the multi-lingual chatter of customers and staff.
For years I thought erroneously that Sam Woo was a pretty lucky and talented guy who managed to parlay his knack for pork-cookery into a chain of packed restaurants. Of course that’s wrong; the name in Cantonese means something like “triple harmonies” which apparently is some sort of feng sui reference, about which I’m utterly ignorant. Whatever cultural significance the name has to the Chinese multitudes who make this restaurant chain so successful, to me Sam Woo means good-to-great quality food that just hits me smack-dab in the comfort zone. Regina and I both, when a cool or drizzly day presents itself, or when we’re plagued by a slight cold or allergies, we give each a knowing looks and drive straight to Sam Woo, usually the outpost in Van Nuys.
Although they have a varied menu (like many Chinese restaurants they try to please just about everyone) Regina and I almost always get the same things. A bowl of wonton mein, which is thin egg noodles in chicken broth with plump pork wontons and some baby bok choy. I always get sliced char sui atop my noodles, and Regina goes for hacked roasted duck. The broth is rich and clear, the wontons are fantastic and tender and flavorful. The duck is very good, if a trifle bland. The pork, which is considered a house specialty of sorts, is also quite good, but falls short of great. Honestly I’ve made much better at home. That being said, the noodle soup is excellent, the sum of the parts being greater in this instance.
I always hit the soup with a dose of the fiery, sinus-clearing chili oil offered in the condiment caddy. Sometimes I’ll add a little soy sauce or white vinegar as well, depending on my mood. When I eat this bowl of noodle soup I feel revitalized, restored, and really, really happy.
We always supplement the noodle soup with some sort of quickly-wokked greens, usually ong choi (also called morning glory or water spinach or rau muong in Vietnamese). Occasionally we’ll order some of their fabulous gailan (Chinese “broccoli”) with a touch of sweet and rich oyster sauce, superbly fresh pea leaves and tendrils, or wonderfully delicious baby bok choy studded with lots of fresh garlic. The greens are always perfectly cooked, stir-fried in a hot wok until green but still crunchy. Gettin’ my greens always makes me feel alive and healthy!
Once in a while we’ll get something else — very tasty chicken wings or fried tofu or salt-n-pepper shrimp. On our last venture we tried the salt-n-pepper squid, a classic Cantonese dish of battered and fried young squid seasoned with salt and ground Sichuan peppercorns. The dish is usually garnished simply with some scallions and a few slivers of spicy fresh chilli.
We were a bit disappointed. The crispy batter was light and airy, but so plentiful it obscured the flavor of the squid. The salt was too prevalent, but the pepper was lacking. It also could have used more garnish — more scallion, more chilli, perhaps some fresh cilantro. That being said, we finished the whole damn plate!
Regina and I have both eaten better Chinese food certainly. But Sam Woo has remained a mainstay on our regular restaurant list. It’s certainly authentic, consistent, and mostly very good. If I’m craving Chinese noodle soup, it’s the first stop I make.
A couple of notes: the Van Nuys location can get very crowded, on rainy days and weekend nights especially, so plan on dining early if you can. Also, they only take cash, so hit the ATM first. The Van Nuys location is right next to a Ranch 99, a chain of large, all-purpose Asian supermarkets. We’ll sometimes drop in afterwards and pick up a couple of nice Korean pears or a mango or two. You can get all your Asian ingredients there for recipes you’ll find in this blog — all manner of sauces and rices and canned goods and fresh fish and live crabs and all kinds of hard-to-find produce. I urge you to visit.6450 Sepulveda Blvd Suite G
Van Nuys, CA 91411
Neighborhood: Van Nuys
Sam Woo doesn’t seem to have a blanket site that covers all their locations, but follow this link for the Van Nuys location.