Dec 2009

Sam Woo Barbecue Shop – Monterey Park


Not last night but the night before, a group of friends and I dined at Newport Tan Cang Seafood Restaurant, a fancy pants Chinese banquet hall in the city of San Gabriel. Aware of Newport’s reputation for stellar seafood preparations, our party of twelve indulged in a prix fixe menu that included delicacies like sharks’ fin soup, sea cucumber, lobster, and crab. The spread was luxurious, plated neatly, and mostly delicious, but after forking over $32 to cover my portion of the tab, I couldn’t help thinking that we should’ve just gone to a simpler joint like Sam Woo.

I’ve always had an inkling that I preferred hole-in-the-wall Chinese eateries to grand restaurants oozing with ambiance, but wasn’t certain until my recent dabble in high-end Chinese cuisine. Granted, Sam Woo is a dingy chain, but there’s something about taut-skinned ducks glistening under florescent lights and service so indifferent that I feel like I’m doing the restaurant a favor by dining there that captures my heart and satisfies my gullet.


According to the restaurant’s superbly written Wikipedia entry, Sam Woo is not a person, but rather the romanization of the Cantonese pronunciation for “triple harmonies.” “Sam” meaning three and “Woo” meaning harmony. Triple harmonies is a reference to the principles of feng shui: heaven, earth, and humanity.

The first Sam Woo was opened by a Hong Kong immigrant in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1979. Since then, the chain has expanded into communities with sizable Chinese populations like Las Vegas, Toronto, and Southern California. There are currently over ten Sam Woo locations in North America.


The Astronomer and I were introduced to Sam Woo by a fellow named Ryan, a classmate of The Astronomer’s. I was excited to learn that Sam Woo specialized in roast fowl, because one of my fondest food memories is of eating roast goose in Hong Kong. I can recall savoring the juicy meat dipped in sweet plum sauce like it was yesterday.

Our group shared half a roast duck ($8.95) that arrived at the table chopped into manageable bits. The quality of the meat and seasonings didn’t match my Hong Kong experience, but the crispy skin, moist meat, and plentiful pockets of fat made everything all right. The plum sauce was worthy of sipping alone; it’s certainly not for everyone, but it definitely is for me.


While I normally frown upon chicken, Sam Woo’s Tung Kong-style salty chicken (half – $7.95) was very enjoyable, especially with a generous pour of scallion oil. The notes of ginger and garlic soaked into the skin, and the boiled texture of the meat reminded me of Hainanese chicken.


For the carbohydrate portion of our meal, we selected a seafood chow mein ($6.75) with scallops, fish, krab, shrimp and squid. For me, chow mein tastes best once the goopy sauce has properly soaked and softened the fried noodles, creating a clumpy delight.


Lastly, we shared a plate of salted and spiced deep-fried bean curd ($6.50). The tofu’s salty crust brought a great deal of flavor and a killer crunch, while the jalapenos and scallions gave the tofu an edge. Sam Woo executes this simple dish very well.

Now, if only it were acceptable to invite wedding guests to a barbecue shop rather than a formal banquet hall.

Sam Woo Barbecue Shop
634 W. Garvey Avenue
Monterey Park, CA 91754
Phone: 626-289-4858


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20 thoughts on “Sam Woo Barbecue Shop – Monterey Park

  1. Ahhhh! When I went to Europe, I remember seeing a few shops that had cooked animals hanging up in the windows. I’m all for eating animals, but that image and THE SMELL made me seriously consider veganism.

  2. I ate at the one at the 99 Ranch Market recently. I’d forgotten how cheap it was and what large portions you get.

    Unlike you, however, I got yelled at for taking photos of the hanging fowl.

  3. My husband and I adopted Sam Woo into our family long ago. Can’t go wrong–such a cheap & reliable friend!

    And agree w/ Ravenous Couple…a Sam Woo (or any other Asian hole-in-the-wall for that matter) wedding would kick ass!

  4. maybe they can cater weddings? I love Sam Woo. Cheap and really one of the few places where you can get yummy cooked BBQed offal such as intestines without driving too far east (I go to the one in Van Nuys)

  5. I also have only eaten at the one in Van Nuys next to the Ranch 99 market, but I found the food to be pretty disappointing. There are a few Chinese hole-in-the-walls in Seattle that I still miss (oh, Green Village, how I pine for thee) and I was hoping that Sam Woo would fill the void, but it was just a typical brown-cornstarch-sauced-everything joint.

  6. Great post Cathy. You bring the duck meat to life and I always learn something new from you. I’v never been to a Sam Woo but it’s so gonnna happen like this weekend. Yum.

  7. All I can say is that this blog hits up all my favorite places in the SGV and exposes me to new ones. I’m currently studying abroad right now in Europe,but your blog just makes me miss home.

  8. You made me homesick again! We used to eat at Sam Woo when I was little. Plus, roast duck sounds good at any time of day. I remember in the 90s Sam Woo was so popular that they had copycats. My favorite was “Sam Doo” haha.

  9. I love that roasted duck – I couldn’t get over how good it was when I went this summer! The service on the other hand… yeah, they pretty much HATED me.

  10. I like Newport Seafood as well. But, 1st time at any restaurant, in general, s/b at lunch – not dinner – when prices/portions are more reasonable. Then, you know the value you’re getting.

  11. Hey, it is totally cool to take a wedding to a bbq joint- they will never forget your wedding and they’ll have a damn good time!

    I’m looking forward to heading to Chinatown in Philly for my anniversary even more now!

  12. Yo Yo, this is a staple! I’m definitely a fan of Sam Woo. I’m glad you enjoyed this chicken as well, since I do like this preparation!

    Just FYI, I think the Sam Woo on Garfield/Valley is actually cheaper than this location on Garvey. Kinda weird, but I guess location counts!

  13. My mom would buy a duck or chicken from this place for dinner once in awhile as I grew up in Monterey Park. However, one time I noticed that the health department had given it a D rating and issued a warning for consumers who ate there that it was possibly harmful to their health given the uncleanliness of the place. Since then, I have not been able to step in the doors of that place. I much prefer Monterey Palace for a much nice setting and awesome Cantonese food.

    Monterey Palace Restaurant‎
    1001 East Garvey Avenue, Monterey Park, CA‎ ‎

  14. Beautiful! You make Sam Woo’s food look so pretty :). Personally I’ve never been to this location yet, let alone have heard about it. I usually just go to the Sam Woo in the same plaza as San Gabriel’s 99 Ranch Market.

    Always quite shocking to see how much food you eat at Sam Woo. Compared to the competitors in town you get more and pay less usually by 20 percent (for me at least).

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