Roasted Ducks And Cantonese BBQ At Sam Woo

Peter Cheung at his Alhambra restaurant / Photo by Clarissa Wei

Sam Woo BBQ has been a Los Angeles establishment for nearly 30 years. The Cheung family started it when they immigrated to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, and soon after the restaurants were divided among their children, a sibling group of seven who had experience roasting ducks and pigs in Hong Kong.

The original joint popped up in L.A.'s Chinatown in 1979 and was a simple barbecue restaurant, with marinated whole pigs and lacquered ducks hung up and brushed with a thick layer of Chinese barbecue spices -- salty with a hint of sweet from the maltose glaze.

Sam Woo means three harmonies -- referring to the unity of heaven, earth, and man. It's an ancient auspicious saying that has, for more than three decades, brought luck and expansion upon the family business.

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Peter Cheung, who runs the Alhambra location with his four daughters, is the second to youngest son of the barbecue chain family and started working at the family business at the age of 20. At 54 years old, he's beginning to leave a lot of the running the business to his daughters, all of whom are now in their twenties. "Manning the kitchen is really ma fan," he noted. Ma fan is a Chinese word for troublesome. "If they want to take it over, that's great. If not, that's fine as well."

The Alhambra location alone goes through 40 chickens, five pigs, and over 80 ducks per day. But with no more than a dozen tables, it's a humble set up compared to the other locations, some which have an extensive seafood menu and a banquet-style layout. In Alhambra, the majority of the business is take-out.

Photo by Sam Woo

"We have a lot of older clientele here," Cheung said in Chinese. "So we haven't changed a lot."

In contrast is the San Gabriel restaurant located on Las Tunas, which opened in 2007. His daughters Karen and Kelly are heavily involved in the operations there, and it is much more upscale in comparison. The daughters represent the next generation: all of them were born and raised in Los Angeles. Karen, who graduated from UC Irvine, says her eventual goal is to modernize the family business.

"We want to keep the traditional recipes but change the experience so it appeals to a more Westernized clientele," she said.

In the San Gabriel Valley, where there is a huge turnover of restaurant openings and closings, it is impressive that the Sam Woo chain has stayed open for so long and been able to expand.

Thirty years strong, regardless of what the Cheung sisters have in store for the future, Sam Woo seems to be here to stay.

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