Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I Wish We Could Have a Sam Woo BBQ Restaurant in Glendale

The very first restaurant that carved a place in my family's collective gustatory preference is Sam Woo in the City of Alhambra. And today, being my birthday, we elected to celebrate this latest milestone in our seminal restaurant of choice. There are probably a dozen of these Hong Kong-style franchise restaurants in Southern California. Unfortunately, however, there's not a single one in our city of Glendale. So, whenever Sam Woo beckons, we had to make that obligatory 15-mile drive to Alhambra to sate our appetite for the trinity: seafood chow mein, shrimp fried rice and beef with Chinese broccoli. The trinity has not changed much through the twenty-two years or so that we've patronized Sam Woo, except for rare occasions when we added one or two entrees, like roast pork or crispy fried chicken with sea salt, and more recently, roast duck.

There is a constant influence to these choices. My daughter Justine, whose taste is not as adventurous as the adults, pretty much dictated our preference for the the trinity. But us adults have been salivating at the thought of trying Sam Woo's other offerings, like their "pot" entrees, consisting of pig intestines, hocks, feet, and other exotic, but otherwise tantalizing dishes. However, due to the restrictions imposed by our Speaker of the House, we've pretty much hewed to the trinity and left the other goodies as figments in our imagination.

We got introduced to Sam Woo in 1986 by Gigi, a friend of my wife's who in turn was introduced to Sam Woo by her officemate. She relentlessly and enthusiastically talked about the restaurant until we agreed to try it ourselves. And so the following weekend, I pointed the aging Honda Prelude in the direction of Alhambra, and the rest was history.

There are a handful of other restaurants, Chinese and otherwise, that my family had discovered in the course of our meanderings for places to dine. In the '80s, a dining phenomenon descended upon Los Angeles in the guise of "all-you-can-eat" and "grill-it-yourself" style restaurants. One of the earlier players in this dining style was the Genghis Khan Barbecue Restaurant, which had a franchise, again, in Alhambra. The other early player was the Todai Japanese Restaurants chain which had its first branch in far-off Santa Monica. But when one is looking for the best deal in terms of a range of entrees and value for money, a 20-mile drive down to Santa Monica didn't matter. After all, at $9 per adult, it was well worth the trip. If you were a gourmand, this was your restaurant. Arrayed on the buffets are an almost unlimited selections of sashimi, sushi, noodles of all varieties, poached sole, oysters, mussels, crabs, even lobsters; a veritable cornucopia of Japanese and Pacific Rim fusion foods that would make your eyes pop and your stomach jump in anticipation. At $9, it was one of the best deals in town at the time.

This franchise sprouted in California like mushrooms, reaching its apex in the late '90s. Even Glendale had (still has) a branch at the Glendale Galleria Mall. But the prices continued to creep up, until such time that it had lost its novelty: their good value for moolah. The Genghis Khan franchise, as far as I know, established another branch in far-off Lomita, adjacent to the more prominent city of Torrance in the South Bay. That second restaurant was located on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway. Its stock-in-trade was Korean-style, grill-your-own, eat-all-you-can dining. If memory serves, it didn't start life as Genghis Khan, but I can't remember anymore what its original name was. This particular Korean barbecue restaurant sticks to mind because as a journalist, I had written a review of it that was published in one of Southern California's community newspapers. When we ate there, the price was around $12 per adult, which entitled you to a wide selection of marinated beef, pork and chicken barbecues and many other offerings that you grilled in hibachis that were integral parts of each table. So, the dining experience is magnified since the customers are involved in cooking their favorite entrees.

We have not been to an all-you-can-eat restaurant in a while, the reason being that, for us small eaters, the economics don't work out in our favor anymore. The last dining of this sort that we had was about two years ago when we treated a visiting journalist friend from New York, and we dined at neighboring Islands Restaurant in Eagle Rock. Islands was an excellent Filipino all-you-can eat dining place. But it folded up suddenly about a year ago for reasons that were never clear to us. In its place now is another excellent Filipino restaurant, Barrio Fiesta, which used to have a branch so close to our apartment in Glendale that whenever we had a craving for Kare Kare, we would swing by and take home a bowl.

But tonight, we will be back to Sam Woo and our trinity.

These are just my ideas. You may have your own. Click "comments" and tell me what you think of this blog.

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