UPDATE: Sam Wo’s could reopen

Mmm congee, the soup that satisfies /Photo Michelle Locke

The popular Sam Wo restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown may not have served its last supper after all.

The restaurant is a Chinatown staple famous for serving up solid Cantonese fare as well as being the stomping grounds of the late Edsel Ford Fung, a no-filter kind of guy who would sometimes insult customers — although on other occasions he would encourage people to eat up and order cheap, filling dishes.

It’s been in business for more than a century, but closed last week after getting a bad grade from San Francisco food inspectors. Owner David Ho said the building was just too old and dilapidated to make the kind  of changes required to bring things up to standard.

But the situation changed after the closing announcement triggered an outpouring of support. Lines wrapped around the block Friday as customers came for one last plate of chow fun or dish of rice porridge and the family put an announcement up on its website asking supporters to show up at a hearing with public health officials.

The meeting was held Tuesday and the room was packed. The Ho family will have to make a number of changes to reopen, including installing a commercial refrigeration unit and more sinks. And they’ll have to get rid of the rodents. The wiring needs fixing and the fire escape (it’s a three-story restaurant) needs some work, too.

Still, family members say they’d like to stay in business if possible.

For more on the hearing, go to the SF Chron story here.

Related posts:

Sam Wo’s Closing



Chinatown’s Sam Wo’s to close

Big news out of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop section reports that owner David Ho confirms the place is closing down after service Friday.

Even if you’ve never been to San Francisco or its Chinatown, you may have heard of this tiny restaurant sandwiched into a sliver of a building. It’s been in business for more than 100 years and during the ’50s was popular with heroes of the Beat scene like Jack Kerouac. It’s probably best-known for cranky waiter Edsel Ford Fung who used to insult customers on a regular basis to hold on to his unofficial title as world’s rudest waiter.

Here is the menu so you can see what you’ll miss. It’s the kind of hearty, calor-ific fare you will find in a lot of Chinatown dives. Which, of course, is just my style. I’m a big fan of the Sampan Porridge with Chinese doughnut. It’s not as scary as it sounds — seafood in a thick rice soup served with delicious fried bread on the side. I would have to say that Mr. Vinecdote (also a Ho, but no relation to David, yes that does make me Mrs. Ho, what of it) has brought many good things into my life with Chinese fried bread near the top of the list.

Late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien visited Sam Wo’s during a tour stop here some years ago and made this rather irreverent commercial for the place; it starts at 2:20 into this clip (but the beginning showing Conan the Cablecar-man is funny, too.)



Spilling the beans

Breast of lamb and bean casserole /Photo Michelle Locke

I’ve got a little secret to tell you about cooking beans from scratch. You know that whole “soak beans overnight,” thing that is guaranteed to make you turn the cookbook page? Well, you don’t have to do any such thing. Just check through the beans for stones and then cover them in a good amount of water _ I did 1-1/2 cups beans to 4 cups water _ bring to a boil for about 3 minutes, then cover and turn off the heat. I wanted mine al dente before they went into the oven, which took about 2 hours.

I was investigating beans because I had a lamb breast on hand and wanted to turn it into a casserole. Breast of lamb is an odd little cut that you will only find if you are buying a whole lamb or go to a specialty butcher. Cooked fast like a chop it would be horrible, with lots of fat and only little bits of tough meat. However, take it low and slow and you get a perfectly delish dish that is very economical.

I did mine by cooking the beans as above until they were soft enough to bite into but not all the way done. I put the drained beans (reserving the bean water) in a casserole, added some rosemary sprigs and a roughly chopped onion and then laid the lamb breast on top. If I had had garlic cloves I would have peeled a handful and popped them in, but I didn’t and I was too lazy busy to walk down to the store to get some. I poured in enough bean water to cover the casserole (adding about another cup about halfway through cooking when most of the liquid had disappeared) and put it in a 300-degree oven for 3 hours. I could have gone longer and slower but that was all the time I had before a ravenous Child 1 burst into the house. I seasoned lightly with salt and pepper before serving with some stir-fried greens to add a bit of brightness to the plate.

Result? Not quite a replica of the famous cassoulet I made such a fuss about in France but pretty darned good all the same. The fat had melted into the beans leaving them tender and flavorful and the meat had fallen off the ribs into tender chunks. I paired this with some Down Under Cellars Shiraz, a classic match-up and also in the economy range at about $9.

So, there you have it, the secret of beans, spilled.

And I’ll tell you something else I learned today. Google “breast of lamb” and you will get a whole lot of results that don’t have anything to do with lamb.

Bon appetit!

Making lamb and bean casserole /Photo Pang Ho


Related posts: http://vinecdote.com/blog4/2011/05/swept-away-by-cassoulet/

Yao Ming, vintner: UPDATE

Big news in the wine world if you are into basketball and the rapidly developing Chinese wine market. Yao Ming, the recently retired Houston Rockets star, announced today he has formed Yao Family Wines in the Napa Valley. The company has released its inaugural wine, a 2009 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, under the brand name YAO MING®.

“Yao Family Wines crafts world-class wines from Napa Valley, and we look forward to introducing wine lovers in China to this remarkable wine growing region,” Ming said in a news release. “I believe that wine can bring people together, and make our lives more enjoyable. Basketball gave me the opportunity to live in the United States and discover many wonderful things in America. Now I look forward to bringing great wines from California back to the Chinese people.”

As you’re probably  aware, the market for wine both imported and domestic is growing exponentially in China. In 2009, that country accounted for 1.5 billion cases, a 5 percent increase over the year before, according to The Wine Institute.  And according to this report, a Hong Kong-based bank is offering to loan as much as $5 million in Hong Kong dollars provided the lender is buying from a list of 50 top producers.

Ming is working with Napa winemaker Tom Hinde, who previously was  general manager of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, as well as president of Sonoma’s Flowers Vineyard and Winery.  Although Ming isn’t actually making the wine, he is making blending suggestions. According to a story in the Wine Spectator, he got interested in wine through having dinners on the road with fellow players knowledgeable about wine.

The label features a sketch of the Napa Valley with the ancient Chinese character for Yao. Actually, China and the Napa Valley go back a long way. Chinese workers helped build the nascent industry back in the 1800s until racist laws chased them out. Here’s a story I wrote about this a couple of years ago.

The wine is available now in China and will be for sale in the U.S. next year. It will sell for about $289 a bottle in China.

UPDATE: There’s been a bit of buzz about that price, which some Internet commenters found exorbitant, several citing the fact that there is no big-time winemaker or famous vineyard. I called for clarification and found that the $289 price for the Chinese market includes import and other taxes. The U.S. price is going to be around $170.










Parsing parsnips


Parsnip, or rather, turnip, cake /Michelle Locke

Back in the BC era (before children) Mr. Vinecdote and I used to enjoy scouting out locations for cheap eats, especially in Oakland’s Chinatown, and one of our best finds was fried parsnip cake at a place called Happy Noodle. (And if I might digress for a moment, how fun are those Chinatown business names? I always got a giggle buying groceries at the New Dick Market in Oakland, because I am 12, and I also felt the pastries we bought at the Happy Bakery, just around the corner from the sadly now-gone Happy Noodle, were just that little bit lighter and fluffier. It makes me wonder, What would happen if I billed myself as Happy Vinecdote? OK, don’t really want to hear the answer on that one.)

Anyway, fried parsnip cake may not sound super appetizing, but it’s actually very good. It’s essentially shredded and steamed vegetable with finely chopped vegetables and something spicy like sausage added in.

For once, my resident Chinese expert could not be of much assistance on this other than to say the Chinese name for parsnips is white carrot. And to further complicate the issue, white carrots covers a host of other things, too, so “parsnip cake” most likely is made of turnips or Chinese white radishes.I found one recipe online, but I would recommend trying to buy these ready-made. They can usually be found at the kind of Chinese restaurants or take-out places that have dim sum. Eaten right out of the box they’re just a bit doughy for my taste. The trick, which I learned at the Happy Noodle, is to slice the cakes in half horizontally and vertically and then fry them in a small amount of olive oil along with a few green onions roughly chopped. Turn the cakes over when the bottoms are golden brown and add one egg, beaten, stirring the egg around to distribute. Cook to desired level of crispness and serve immediately.

If you’re having this for lunch, as with a lot of Chinese food, a cup of green tea hits the spot. But if you’re looking to pair with wine, I would try a robust white, perhaps a Vouvray or a rich chardonnay like Cupcake Chardonay Central Coast.

At Happy Noodle, we always had these with a spicy, dark-brown dipping sauce that complemented the cakes perfectly. I tried recreating at home, no dice, and finally could bear it no longer, asking Mr. V to find out the secret the next time we were in the restaurant. A long conversation ensued, from which I learned basically nothing except that it came in a bottle. (You know how it goes? The other two parties chatter away for about 10 minutes and your interpreter turns to you and says, “He says, yes.”) But I persisted. Could I please see the bottle. I promise not to tell. A short while later out came the waiter solemnly bearing a bottle of … Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce.

A true moment of Sino-Anglo collaboration.



Totally tofu



Tofu sheets drying at Hodo Soy Beanery /Michelle Locke

If there’s one thing I enjoy it’s watching other people work _ doesn’t matter whether they’re fixing lunch or fixing a pothole.

So you can imagine how much I enjoyed a recent visit to the Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland, a state-of-the-art tofu facility tucked away in what was once a candy factory.

The beanery was founded in 2004 by Minh Tsai, who wanted to recreate the fresh, high-quality tofu he ate as a child in Vietnam. The company recently added some star power by signing up John Scharffenberger, founder of the Schaffen Berger chocolate company, as CEO.

If you think of tofu as a kind of punishment food that only a vegan could love, think again. Good tofu is tasty enough to eat raw, with a delicate, cheese-like texture. It’s even better cooked my favorite way, mixed with a spicy, juicy meat sauce.If you’re in Oakland and want to learn more, check out the Hodo Soy website. Tours are available for the public twice a month for $10.

Here’s a video I made of my visit.



Happily, the “person at work” theme didn’t end for me at the factory. I got to go home and watch Mr. Vinecdote put together a great dish of shrimp and tofu.

To make: Peel and dice about 1 tablespoon of ginger and chop one bunch of green onions into roughly two-inch lengths, frying both in olive oil until beginning to soften. Add a block of tofu, cut into cubes. Stir 1 teaspoon flour into about 3/4 cup of water or chicken broth and add to the pan. Check for seasoning and add salt or soy sauce to taste. In a separate pan, fry about half  pound of shrimp until it turns pink. Stop as soon as shrimp are cooked. Add to the onion-tofu mixture and serve over steamed rice.

For a wine pairing, the flavors of this dish are so delicate that just about any light white wine will do, and, in fact, if you have some bubbles all the better. If you want to try something different, pick up a Picpoul de Pinet, an inexpensive and delicious wine from France’s Mediterranean coast that is perfect with shellfish.

Bon appetit.


Cupboard Love


Did 2010 make you feel like curling up with a plate of something warm and soft? You weren’t alone. Allrecipes.com just released its top recipes for last year and the list includes  such comfort food staples as brownies, twice-baked potatoes and pulled pork. According to Allrecipes, the list was compiled by analyzing data from 535 million visits and more than 3 billion page views.

In case you’re wondering, that’s just a teensy bit more traffic than Vinecdote gets. (Click more, friends!) And I can’t help wondering how many of those billions of page views translated into food on the table. I can’t count the number of times I’ve started out with the best of intentions and found my interest flagging round about the time when I got to the instruction to take out a third bowl or pan or _ and this is a guaranteed dealbreaker _ “let sit overnight in a cool place.”This is why I’m a fan of food processor desserts. Sifting, stirring, whipping? No. But even at my lowest I can just about manage to measure ingredients into a bowl, push a button and then decant the contents into the oven.Some of my efforts to process my way to quicker sweets have proved unrewarding. It appears chocolate cake can be made this way, but not well. Although I have not entirely given up on that. But the other night I gave peanut butter cookies a whirl and they turned out great. This is real American comfort food (and I say that as a British immigrant) and really very easy.To wit:

EASY PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES (recipe adapted from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook)

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened and cut into chunks
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter (I used crunchy because I hate creamy)
  • 1-1/2 cups flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

Makes about 3 dozen cookies. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two baking sheets. Put ingredients in food processor. Process until combined. Form dough into balls. Place on greased cookie sheet. Flatten cookies with back of fork. Bake for 10-15 minutes. After the first 5 minutes or so, watch them like a hawk because, like all cookies, they go from blonde and raw to brown and burned in about 15 seconds.Curious about what home cooks were making, or at least thinking about making in 2011? Here’s the list from Allrecipes.Top Recipes of 2010

Hmm, I wonder how brownies would work out in the food processor?Bon appetit!

Pretty Pumpkin

Look what my friend E. made for dinner the other night. It really seems too pretty to eat, doesn’t it? They did, though.

This a great dish for fall and is based on a recipe from Dorie Greenspan, author of the fabulous new cookbook, “Around My French Table.” It’s one of those recipes you can play around with, a little more of this, a little less of that, and is fairly simple, too. Dorie talked about this on NPR recently and it seems to have made quite a hit. I heard about a few other people who were inspired to try it. As E. puts it, “how could I *not* try something with heavy cream, bacon, and Gruyere?” He did use half/half to cut down on the cream factor a bit.  Here’s the original recipe, reprinted with kind permission of Dorie. Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good

  • 1 pumpkin, about 3 pounds
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 pound stale bread, thinly sliced and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
  • 1/4 pound cheese, such as Gruyere, Emmenthal, cheddar, or a combination, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
  • 2–4 garlic cloves (to taste), split, germ removed, and coarsely chopped
  • 4 strips bacon, cooked until crisp, drained, and chopped
  • About 1/4 cup snipped fresh chives or sliced scallions
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
  • About 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment. Using a very sturdy knife — and caution — cut a cap out of the top of the pumpkin (think Halloween jack-o’-lantern). It’s easiest to work your knife around the top of the pumpkin at a 45-degree angle. C lear away the seeds and strings from the cap and from inside the pumpkin. Season the inside of the pumpkin generously with salt and pepper, and put it on the baking sheet or in the pot. Toss the bread, cheese, garlic, bacon, and herbs together in a bowl. Season with pepper — you probably have enough salt from the bacon and cheese, but taste to be sure — and pack the mix into the pumpkin. The pumpkin should be well filled — you might have a little too much filling, or you might need to add to it. Stir the cream with the nutmeg and some salt and pepper and pour it into the pumpkin. Again, you might have too much or too little — you don’t want the ingredients to swim in cream, but you do want them nicely moistened. (But it’s hard to go wrong here.) Put the cap in place and bake the pumpkin for about 2 hours — check after 90 minutes — or until everything inside the pumpkin is bubbling and the flesh of the pumpkin is tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a knife. Because the pumpkin will have exuded liquid, I like to remove the cap during the last 20 minutes or so, so that the liquid can bake away and the top of the stuffing can brown a little. When the pumpkin is ready, carefully, very carefully — it’s heavy, hot, and wobbly — bring it to the table or transfer it to a platter that you’ll bring to the table. Serving You have choices: you can cut wedges of the pumpkin and filling; you can spoon out portions of the filling, making sure to get a generous amount of pumpkin into the spoonful; or you can dig into the pumpkin with a big spoon, pull the pumpkin meat into the filling, and then mix everything up. I’m a fan of the pull-and-mix option. Served in hearty portions followed by a salad, the pumpkin is a perfect cold-weather main course; served in generous spoonfuls or wedges, it’s just right alongside the Thanksgiving turkey. Dorie’s variations There are many ways to vary this arts-and-crafts project. Instead of bread, I’ve filled the pumpkin with cooked rice — when it’s baked, it’s almost risotto-like. And, with either bread or rice, on different occasions I’ve added cooked spinach, kale, chard, or peas (the peas came straight from the freezer). I’ve made it without bacon, and I’ve also made and loved, loved, loved it with cooked sausage meat; cubes of ham are another good idea. Nuts are a great addition, as are chunks of apple or pear or pieces of chestnut.

Bon appetit!