Those of you who live in the Los Angeles area know that in order to get good Chinese food, you need to trek to the San Gabriel Valley. If like me, you live on the Westside, that’s an hour drive (in no traffic, which really only ever happens at 3am or when they completely shut down the 405, so you’re really looking at spending 3 hours round trip in the car for your shumai fix) which does not make it particularly convenient! I have tried a handful of Chinese restaurants on the Westside and have found them all to be woefully inadequate, mere embers of an unfulfilled promise for tasty Chinese cooking. Then, one day I stumbled upon a little restaurant in Van Nuys next door to the 99 Ranch Market called Sam Woo BBQ and it provided a ray of hope that authentic Hong Kong style food can be found closer to home! Sam Woo is actually a chain of restaurants in the LA area, with locations in Chinatown, Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley. I fortunately discovered the one located 10 minutes from my office.
What I love best about Sam Woo is the fact the menu lists items that make most people inexperienced in authentic Chinese cuisine want to run for the hills – stuff like Pig’s Blood Porridge, Soy Sauce Intestine and Deep Fried Whole Fish. I never understood why it bothered people so much to see the head on a fish when it is served to them. As a kid, I just thought everyone cooked and served the whole fish. Hell, I’ve sat at the table with people fighting over who got to eat the eyeballs, so I just don’t understand the complete fear and disgust over seeing the head of the fish. For this review, I ordered 3 takeout dishes since I was having a busy week at work and didn’t have time to have lunch out – BBQ Pork and Chicken on Rice, Beef Chow Fun (dry), and Three Flavors Chow Mein (which was shredded duck, chicken and pork made with the pan fried egg noodles).
All three dishes were a solid effort. The Beef Chow Fun was flavorful, with tender chunks of beef and al dente rice noodles, cooked in a flavorful but not overly greasy sauce, set off with a nice subtle crunch of sprouts and scallions. The BBQ pork, or as I like to refer to it in Chinese, char siu, was respectable, but not out of the ordinary as far as char siu goes. Same goes for the chicken, which was lightly seasoned with soy sauce. The BBQ Pork and Chicken on Rice dish was like comfort food to me – the stuff I’d expect my mom to stick of dish of in front of me at home for a routine dinner – nothing to get too excited about, but reassuring nonetheless. The dish I was probably least impressed with was the Three Flavors Chow Mein.
This is a shame, since well-made pan fried noodles is one of my favorite dishes of all time. The egg noodles themselves were actually very well done, they were nice and crispy without being burned. However, I was a bit under whelmed by the meat/sauce combo. When I heard duck/chicken/pork, I expected the meat and sauce to be very flavorful since duck and roast pork tend to have strong, distinct flavors. But I actually had trouble distinguishing whether certain slivers of meat were pork or duck which just should not be the case. I also found myself wishing there were a greater variety of vegetables in the dish – it only had sprouts, onion and a total of about 4 snow peas. In addition to using better meat, I think the dish also would have benefited from the addition of some bok choy, mushrooms, carrots or Chinese broccoli. Still, they did a good enough job with the noodles that I am definitely curious enough to try ordering the chow mein again but with different meats and vegetables.
Though the prices seem a bit high for Chinese food (around $7-10 per plate), the portion sizes were quite hearty for all the dishes – each would have easily served a full meal to at least 2 people. On the whole, I give the food a 3.5 star rating out of 5. I have had better quality, more complexly flavored Hong Kong restaurant style food. However, Sam Woo BBQ in Van Nuys does a happily satisfactory job of providing me with my fix of un-Americanized Chinese food without having to drive completely out of my way. Thanks Sam Woo, I’ll be back for more!
EatinAsian Food Review by Janet Casamento