Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sam Woo BBQ: Good Duck, Bad Diana

"We should stop and get Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley on the way back," my friend Suzanne said as we drove out to the San Gabriel Mountains on Sunday for an all-day 10 mile hike to the Bridge to Nowhere.

I glanced back at her in the rear view mirror. "That sounds disgusting right now." I said, pushing my nose up into the air.

It was 7:00 am in the morning and the last thing I wanted to think about was greasy Chinese food from some C-rated dive very far off my beaten path of West Hollywood. I could barely stomach the bowl of Kashi Good Friends Cinnamon Raisin cereal I'd eaten before we'd left, and it wasn't helping that our friend Hank was on a mission to drive the curves of the mountainous roads as fast as possible without careening off the edge. As I gripped the door handle of his silver BMW, erroneously believing that my firm hold on the door would save me should we fly off the road, I set my mind in direct opposition to our future ingestion of Chinese food. If I made it off the mountain alive, my first stop would be a hot shower followed by the biggest glass of wine I could pour into my pink-stemmed Riedel glass.

Suzanne, however, was not so easily swayed from her 7 am musings.

"I can't wait for lunch." I said during our nearly three hour trek out to the Bridge.

"I can't wait for Chinese food." She replied, stomping through our fourth unnecessary river crossing of the morning. (A consequence of attempting to traverse the path sans hiking group, relying on Hank's hand-held GPS unit, Garmon, instead.)

Later in the day, as we strode back to our cars under the blazing heat of the afternoon sun, each of us weak with hunger and dehydration, she brought it up again.

"Chinese food is what's getting me through this." She announced to the craggy rocks in our path.

I ignored her comment, already plotting how I could get out of eating my weight in MSG.

But then at the cars, she put on a pitiful, tired face and rehashed the reasons why we should all stop for Chinese food on the way home. She cleverly pretended that it wasn't that big of a deal if we didn't want to go. She even offered to go some place else if we weren't in the mood.

"It doesn't sound that great to me, but if everyone's in, that's fine." I said slowly, careful not to get too close to the ledge should she suddenly get the urge to push me off.

"I feel like I've been preconditioned to want it." Hank responded. "She's been talking about it since 7 this morning." He told Wendy and Rich.

"I like food." Wendy piped in.

"I'm game." Rich concurred.

I groaned in my head, but offered up my best attempt at an easy-going, go-with-the-flow smile. I needn't have bothered. At this point, no one was looking at me for approval.

After fifteen minutes of phone calls and Yelp, Chowhound and LA Weekly searches using Hank's iPhone, we finally settled on Sam Woo Barbecue in Alhambra. It had 4 stars on Yelp and, surprisingly enough, an A-rating from the Health Department. That single sign was enough to make up for the less than glamorous setting of the small restaurant off West Valley Boulevard. Never mind that there were rows of ducks (beaks still attached) hanging in the entrance. Or that the multi-page menu featured items like pork intestine, pork blood, boiled beef tripe, and pig's kidney. I commanded myself to plaster the fake, easy-going smile back on my face and immediately beelined to the bathroom to wash my hands.

Where there was no soap left in the dispenser.

Ten minutes after I reported the situation to one of the waiters, I was finally able to scour the mountain off of me -- just in time to sit down at our round table near the door to the kitchen. I breathed a sigh of relief as I sank into the hard seat of my chair. It wasn't the hot shower and glass of French wine that I'd envisioned, but at this point, I didn't care. The ten-mile hike had taken its toll, and I was starving.

We read over the menu in a daze, pipping up whenever something sounded appealing.

"Yelp says the roasted duck and barbecued pork are great." Suzanne reported.


"Honey walnut shrimp?" I suggested, ready to ponce if anyone dared challenge my less than authentic demand.

Heads bobbed in agreement.

Shrimp chow mein, vegetarian fried rice and mapo tofu were soon added to our roster of dishes, and just as I began to open my mouth to request a vegetable (so I could at least feel somewhat redeemed after not getting my way earlier), our stone-faced waitress descended upon our table to take our order.

The others in my party began announcing our desired entrees, and at what I considered a brief interlude in the discussion, I confidently made my entreaty.

"Can we get a vegetable?"

The waitress' eyes flashed with fury. She narrowed them in my direction, and with a single quick exhale, she shushed me into silence.

I sat back in shock as she turned her attention toward Wendy. Hank choked on a laugh, and my cheeks burned in embarrassment. Stunned by her reprimand, I patiently waited my turn.

A few moments later, the surly waitress narrowed her eyes over in my direction again.

"You have vegetarian rice." She said, her voice flat and steaming with disapproval.

"I... uhh..." I stammered. "Can we just get some sort of stir-fried broccoli or something," I whispered to my friends, pleading with them to take pity on me.

Suzanne, formerly the thorn in the side of my great wine plan, lept to my rescue, taking charge with the waitress to secure an order of garlicky greens for the table. Suzanne was rewarded with a nod. I took it as a sign that it was safe to speak again.

"Thank you." I said sweetly.

She didn't acknowledge my peace offering.

"Green tea on the table. Any other drinks?"

Hank smiled up at her. "Can I get a Sunkist?"

She smiled back with another of her motherly nods, and immediately scooted over to the cooler to fetch him a can. She popped the lid, tucked a straw into the opening and gently set it before him.

"Thank you." I repeated, beaming at her like a beauty pageant contestant.

Her eyes narrowed again, and she flipped around toward the kitchen.

"She hates me!" I sputtered, as my friends burst into laughter.

"No one hates me!" I continued, still in shock by the whole interaction. "I just wanted a vegetable. We are getting so many meat dishes; we needed something to balance it out! And it's important to get antioxidants to combat all the free radicals we've released into our bloodstream from the hike!" I ranted. "I'm keeping us healthy!"

They rolled their eyes in amusement. I knew what each of them was thinking.

"Whatever you say, Diana."

I started to put on a pouty face, but didn't have much time to sulk as the dishes were soon crowding up the sticky environs of our table. This was no time for a neurotic stew session -- I had to secure my feed or be left behind in the desert of the hungry.

While most of the dishes tasted like standard, greasy Chinese to me (the very items I was trying to avoid when I'd set my mind against our San Gabriel Valley excursion), I couldn't get enough of the roasted duck, the honey walnut shrimp and the garlicky greens that I worked so hard to secure. The succulently tender, crisp-skinned duck is the type of dish that I would gladly endure more scorn for, and the crispy honey walnut shrimp, coated in a thick white sauce, burst open into my mouth just like a barely cooked shrimp should.

Each of us attacked the dishes with the same vigor that we'd approached the hike that morning, and as we shoveled in noodles, rice and fatty pieces of meat, words were far and few between.

"The duck!" I exclaimed in carnivoric ecstasy. "You have to try the duck!"

"The pork is so good!" Rich announced, diving in for a few more pieces.

"They are crispy, but soft." Suzanne observed of the chow mein noodles.

"That's a good walnut." Wendy said to no one in particular.

Our rapid consumption slowed as our bellies began to register the initial signs of extreme fullness, and soon, all our forks and chopsticks had been laid down in the position of surrender.

We'd come, we'd conquered and, according to the narrow-eyed gaze of our waitress, we'd overstayed our welcome.

We paid our $66 cash-only bill (before tax), and scooted out of our chairs toward the exit.

"Thank you!" I said one last time.

A hard face returned my greeting.

There would be no smiles for me at Sam Woo BBQ. Not from the waitress, not from the waiter who fetched me hand soap, and definitely not from the delicious dead ducks hanging in the window.


H. C. said...

awww... don't feel bad, SGV is also short-form for surly, grumpy, vapid [waitstaff]-- and yes, the duck and pork are generally great Sam Woo; never tried the honey walnut shrimp there though (even if it's one of my uber-Americanized Chinese dish weakness)

Jenn said...

cranky waitstaff, gotta love it. LOL. I haven't tried Sam Woo yet. I'll have to stop by when head that way. Just for the duck and pork.

The Blonde Duck said...

I'm not a chinese food person. We ducks aren't into places that serve ducks. Esp. with mean, MEAN waitresses!

Diana said...

HC - Haha, she wasn't that bad, but I was definitely put in my place! :) Everyone at our table really liked the shrimp -- even if we did feel mildly guilty for being so unadventurous!

Jenn - The duck is a must! Seriously the best preparation I've ever had!

Miranda - Haha, don't worry - I don't think any of the ducks consumed were blonde. ;)

Kung Food Panda said...

Haha, welcome to SGV! Where low tips, and annoying Chinese customers have made these waitress into grumpy creatures...

Sam Woo is my go to spot for BBQ Pork, Soy sauce chicken, and the duck. It's cheap, fast, and somewhat clean. Good choice! I've never had veggies there before.....

Melissa Good Taste said...

Yum yum. At least the food looks good! The Honey Walnut Shrimp is calling my name!!!

Kirby! said...

I need to head out to SGV more often!! The few Chinese places I've been to in that hood were really delicious.

And that is so funny about the waitress. I take it ultra-personally when people don't automatically really like me a lot (I am PRETTY AWESOME, after all!!). It is my lifelong goal to befriend the ladies at India Sweets and Spices in Atwater. If you've never been there, you should check it out. You will get no love.

Esi said...

Those many restaurants in SGV have such awesome and authentic food.

Erica said...

I love the build up to the meal ;) At least the food turned out yummy! Good stuff and sounds like an overall fun day

Reeni♥ said...

I zeroed right in on the honey-walnut shrimp, a dish I have been wanting to make at home forever. You just gave me that little push to get it done. I don't think anything could ruin your day, even grumpy-girl, the hike sounds so fun!

elmomonster said...

So you're saying you got to experience the full splendor of a SGV Chinese meal! HAHA! Sorry. I couldn't help it.

At least most of the food was good. I can't get enough of that honey glazed walnut shrimp...eventhough it's a recent invention.

And kudos on requesting veggies...that server should know that that was a very Chinese thing to order...balance!

Sara said...

That's hilarious that you got snubbed! The duck sure sounds good.

Diana said...

Kung Food Panda – I feel so much better knowing that it’s not me! I was starting to doubt my charm! ;) I was really surprised at how reasonable the prices were – especially for such generous servings. I think I might be able to handle the public scorn for a platter of $6 noodles.

Melissa – Yes, the honey walnut shrimp is calling my name too! I could really go for more!

Kirby – Haha, I’m the same way! But I’m sure – nay I KNOW -- that you are really awesome so it should of course follow that everyone who meets you should immediately recognize that. Too funny about India Sweets and Spices. I’ll have to check it out!

Esi – I definitely want to try more of the restaurants out there. I hear really great things about the beef rolls at 101 Noodle Express. Jonathan Gold approved!

Erica – It was such a fun day! My friends and I are already talking about going for another hike. That ends with food, of course!

Reeni – I was thinking about trying to recreate the shrimp too! Or doing some sort of healthy version with yogurt and such. And you are so right about the grump not ruining my day in the least – it was really quite perfect. ☺

Elmo Monster – I love that this sort of thing is considered “normal.” I was genuinely concerned! Now that I know what to expect, I definitely want to go back for more. And I will get my veggies, gosh darn it!

Sara – The duck was amazing! I told my friends about it at dinner tonight.