Sam Wo closing due to health and safety issues

April 20, 2012 7:51:33 PM PDT
Sam Wo restaurant in Chinatown has a rich history and a building that's in disrepair. The San Francisco institution is closing its doors.

Every day, in a cramped kitchen, the cooks at Sam Wo make fresh rice noodles, fry them up and then lower the dumbwaiter by hand to send them upstairs. It's been that way for almost a century.

Loyal customers have been eating there for decades. Very little has changed in that time.

"It's the same old marble tables and the old stools; nothing has changed since I was a kid," one customer said.

Not even the recipes. But the rice noodle rolls being made on Friday could be some of Sam Wo's last.

"We're shutting down the restaurant and it's just like the end of an era," Julie Ho, whose father owns the restaurant, said.

The health department is forcing them to close -- possibly forever.

"Both for public health concerns and issues, and also equally important, the worker safety issues that exist in the old structure here in Chinatown," health inspector Terrence Hong said.

The concerns about Sam Wo's structure are interesting; Chinatown historians say, by some definitions, Sam Wo isn't even a building.

"It's basically an alleyway," Chinatown Ghost Tours owner Cynthia Yee said. "This building has no walls and it's basically supported by the bldg to the right and to the left."

It's been that way for 100 years.

It was a beatnik hangout in the 50s and home to man known as the world's rudest waiter -- Edsel Ford Fong.

"He would get mad at the cook downstairs and shout down the dumbwaiter until you think he was going to have apoplexy," customer Palmer Kimball said.

Some say he still haunts the place.

"Edsel was such a playful ghost," Chinatown historian and tour guide Chuck Gee said. "He would slide the teacup across the table."

But ghosts are the least of the problems. Never mind the citations for rats and cockroaches, bringing the place up to current fire code would be nearly impossible.

Then again, for the food, some patrons don't seem to care.

"It's well worth it; it's well worth dying for," a customer said.

Friday, customer lined up around the block for a chance to eat what could possibly be their final meals at Sam Wo. But there is hope; on Tuesday, Sam Wo's owners will plead their case before the Department of Public Health for an extension on the deadline to fix the violations.

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