It’s a Sam world after all.
Sorry, Mr. Disney, but I am singing about Sam Woo B.B.Q. Restaurant in Van Nuys, a new link in a chain of authentic Chinese barbecue emporia that now stretches from Monterey Park to British Columbia.
This plain, white-tiled, pink-curtained cafe is near a recently opened branch of the huge 99 Market in a mostly Chinese mall at the northeast corner of Sepulveda and Victory boulevards. Inside it looks almost exactly like any of the Sam Woos in Chinatown, the San Gabriel Valley or Orange County; that is, it looks as if it means business. You’re greeted by a flock of hanging ducks, heads still on, fragrant with star anise and waiting to be hacked into appetizing chunks with a cleaver.
A Chinese barbecue house is just the thing for the committed carnivore. Next to the ducks, you’ll find shining metal tubs of barbecued pork ( char siu ), suckling pig with the skin still on ( siu yuk ), barbecued chicken, barbecued tripe and homemade sausages, plus several racks of the best-looking spareribs you’ve ever seen.
You can try five or six of these specialties for $12.95 by ordering Sam Woo’s combination plate, a platter piled a foot high with meat. But if you do not speak Chinese, chances are the kitchen will fail to include two of the best things to eat here: the succulent roast duck and the rich, penetrating tripe. I ordered them separately but next time I’m going to ask to have them included in the combo.
The platter I had came with ribs, roast pork, slices of sweet, delicate suckling pig (crunchy skin and all), tender (if rubber-skinned) soy sauce chicken and what seemed like a pound of cut sausage. This is meaty, messy eating, to be done with the fingers, the meats dipped in either fruity duck sauce or the mysterious, liver-flavored brown sauce intended for the suckling pig. I even liked the sausage, though it was hardly exotic, tasting much like American breakfast sausage.
Beyond the barbecue menu, more than 100 Cantonese dishes await--rice dishes, noodle dishes, vegetables, meats, seafood. Unlike the barbecue dishes, however, they’re rather ordinary--though in an authentic Chinese sort of way. That is, although the flavors are sometimes less intense than you might like, the dishes do not have the annoying levels of sugar, soy sauce and MSG that mar most of the Valley’s Chinese restaurant cookery.
When you order, say, a plate of bok choy or spinach, what you get is a quickly sauteed heap of the fresh vegetables embellished only with a handful of salt, a few drops of oil and the occasional clove of garlic. The spinach is simple and pleasant cooked this way, but be warned: a few dishes are downright insipid. The nice-looking plate of sauteed shrimp has almost no flavor, and those stalks of bok choy are surprisingly lifeless.
Fortunately, it swings both ways. Clams with black bean sauce, that Cantonese classic, is terrific. The clams are fresh and clean-tasting, rubbed with the powerful fermented soy beans and sauteed with red chiles, sweet peppers, onions and an intelligent sprinkle of oil. The kung pao scallops are nearly as flavorful as the restaurant’s shrimps are flavorless, and the peanuts and fagara peppers embellishing the dish add the proper crunch.
I find the menu’s most insistently ethnic dish--a turnip, pig’s blood and intestines hot pot--just a bit too intense.
A better choice for the adventurer might be deep-fried cuttlefish ball, or perhaps the delicately flavored preserved egg with duck porridge, which Cantonese eat for breakfast or after the bars close.
Naturally there is a spate of good noodle and rice dishes. Among my favorites are pan-fried chow mein with pork and Chinese greens, beef with black bean sauce chow fun (rice noodles), the curry-flavored Singapore-style fried mai fun rice noodles (Chinese angel hair pasta, if you will) and pan-fried yee mein , a filling egg noodle the Chinese equate with long life.
The service at Sam Woo, I might add, is almost courtly, at least when compared with the rude service for which restaurants in Monterey Park and Alhambra are famous.
Water glasses are refilled with regularity, and, miracle of miracles, the service plates are cheerfully changed between barbecued and cooked courses, so that you don’t have to eat your kung pao scallops amid chicken and pork bones.
As I was about to say, it’s a Sam, Sam world.
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WHERE AND WHEN
What: Sam Woo B.B.Q. Restaurant, 6450 Sepulveda Blvd., Van Nuys.
Suggested dishes: Sam Woo combination plate, $12.95; roast duck on rice, $4.50; beef with black bean sauce chow fun , $4.75; kung pao scallops, $7.50.
Hours: Barbecue takeout, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; dining room, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Price: Dinner for two, $9 to $23. No alcoholic beverages. Parking lot. Cash only.
Call: (818) 988-6813.