Some of America's favorite takeout foods are American versions of different cuisines, especially Chinese cuisine. Dishes like orange chicken, chop suey, and Kung Pao chicken are American creations. In Fall River, Massachusetts, that creative spin on a cuisine takes the form of a chow mein sandwich.
A chow mein sandwich is simply fried chow mein noodles topped with gravy and meat and served on a plain hamburger bun, often with french fries on the side. It doesn't look like a sandwich you pick up and eat, though locals may give you some side-eye if you use a fork, and it's definitely the most filling thing you'll have all day. It's also got a long history as a local favorite.
How the Chow Mein Sandwich got its Start
In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants began settling in New England, moving east after working on the Transcontinental Railroad. Anthropology professor Imogene Lim told NPR that their first businesses were often laundries since they didn't require being an expert in the English language. Tea shops were added to the back of the laundries, and out of those tea shops came restaurants.
Because Chinese food was unfamiliar to the other immigrant workers from Poland, Ireland and French Canada who staffed the textile mills in Massachusetts towns like Fall River, these Chinese restaurants figured out food that would appeal to their customers. It had to be filling, easy to make, and inexpensive. And while the workers weren't familiar with Chinese cuisine, they did know sandwiches.
The Secret Chow Mein Sandwich Recipe
Have you ever put potato chips on your sandwich? The crispy noodles do the same work in a chow mein sandwich. They are deep-fried before the brown gravy--made with celery, bean sprouts, and onion-is poured on and the meat is added. The gravy softens up the noodles a little bit, but this is still a crunchy sandwich.
According to a recipe from Emeril Lagasse, who hails from Fall River and ate the sandwich at Mee Sum Restaurant, you can make them by cutting egg roll or wonton wrappers into thin strips and frying them. But others swear by a particular brand of chow mein noodles and won't make the sandwich with anything else.
In 1926, Frederick Wong settled in Fall River, working for his uncle at the Hong Kong Restaurant. In 1938, Wong opened the Oriental Chow Mein Company, where he produced chow mein mix, crispy noodles, and bean sprouts. He began packaging the noodles and a packet of gravy in a box under the name Hoo-Mee Chow Mein Mix.
Today, the company is the only one in the region that still makes chow mein noodles. In 2009, the factory burned down, but there was no question on whether or not they would rebuild.
A local paper reported that the Barbara Wong and her brother in law Fred were stopped in the street and getting calls at their homes to find out when the factory would reopen. Restaurants in town got their fried noodles from companies in Boston and New York, and customers hated them. It took six months, but loyalty to the Fall River chow mein sandwich stayed strong.
The sandwich's popularity is such that it was even served in the Fall River school cafeteria until the 1990s, according to the New England Historical Society.
At one point, the sandwich did make its way out of Massachusetts all the way to Brooklyn; Coney Island's Nathan's Famous chow mein sandwich was a staple menu item for a long time (though no more sadly). Today, the chow mein sandwich full of gravy-topped crunchy goodness isn't seen much outside of southeastern Massachusetts and a few towns in Rhode Island, but you can make it yourself at home by ordering Hoo-Mee Chow Mein Mix online.
This article was originally published on August 13, 2019.