How The Chow Mein Sandwich Claimed A Small Slice Of New England History : The Salt This quirky concoction, which traces its decades-old roots to Fall River, Mass., took off when Chinese restaurants adapted their menus to appeal to European textile workers. And people still love it.
NPR logo

How The Chow Mein Sandwich Claimed A Small Slice Of New England History

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/732028721/735510455" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How The Chow Mein Sandwich Claimed A Small Slice Of New England History

How The Chow Mein Sandwich Claimed A Small Slice Of New England History

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/732028721/735510455" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Our next story is about a sort of sandwich that is also a noodle dish. Locals in Fall River, Mass., call it the chow mein sandwich. Sarah Mizes-Tan of member station WCAI takes a bite of this dish that smacks of the city's factory worker past.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, that's chicken chow mein.

REGINA MARK: OK, I'll...

SARAH MIZES-TAN, BYLINE: The chow mein sandwich is, in some ways, exactly how you would imagine it - a portion of fried chow mein noodles with gravy poured over it served on a simple, no-frills hamburger bun. The dish has been a specialty of Chinese restaurants in the area for decades.

MARK: We have people come from New York, Chicago. And it's so funny. They will whisper to the server to say, do you have those burger sandwich? I say, you mean the chow mein sandwich? I say yes, we do.

MIZES-TAN: That's Regina Mark, the co-owner of Mee Sum Restaurant in Fall River, a place that's been making chow mein sandwiches for over 50 years. She says the sandwich's popularity was due in large part because of the city's factory worker population in the early 1900s.

MARK: Fall River is very booming with factory, textile industry. And mostly a lot of worker. That's why chow mein sandwich sell over here.

MIZES-TAN: When Chinese immigrants first started arriving in Fall River in the late 1800s, many were coming from the West Coast, pushed out by hostility caused by the Chinese Exclusion Act. They opened restaurants. But in a town that was mostly factory workers from Ireland and Poland, Chinese restaurants had to adapt.

Imogene Lim is a professor at Vancouver Island University who studied the sandwich for her anthropology dissertation.

IMOGENE LIM: If you're thinking, immigrant groups, what do they know about Chinese food? But they know something called a sandwich. So a sandwich becomes something accessible to them as a way to ease in that notion of Chinese cuisine.

MIZES-TAN: Chinese restaurant owners realized that if they put a hamburger bun on top, they could make an unfamiliar dish seem more approachable to European immigrants. The result is that Fall River immigration created a sandwich that's neither Chinese nor Irish or Polish. It's American.

Back at Mee Sum, Regina Mark shows me first how to prepare the noodles for a proper chow mein sandwich.

MARK: Because we like to keep it nice and hot, we dip it in the fryer.

MIZES-TAN: She piles hot noodles and chicken on a bun, and then it's ready for the gravy.

MARK: See how we pour it on? And then we come over here for the gravy. Put a bun over here. All right, I want you to try it.

MIZES-TAN: OK, and that's it?

MARK: That's it.

MIZES-TAN: I use a fork and take a bite. The noodles have just the right amount of crunch, and the restaurant's secret gravy recipe offers a nice counterpoint to the crispy noodles. It's a warm and comforting sandwich. Dave Lussier grew up eating chow mein sandwiches with his family in Fall River, and he says it's the noodles that set them apart.

DAVE LUSSIER: You get special noodles. They give you a lot of chicken. It's delicious. You know, it's kind of a joke that it's a sandwich because you can't pick it up.

MIZES-TAN: He adds that for a true Fall River touch, you can top it off with vinegar. The dish is such a classic Fall River food that back in the 1970s, a band called Alika and the Happy Samoans even wrote a song about it in tribute.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOW MEIN SANDWICH (CHINA ROYAL SPECIAL)")

ALIKA AND THE HAPPY SAMOANS: (Singing) Chow mein sandwich.

MIZES-TAN: In the end, Regina Mark says the sandwich may seem an odd creation by today's standards.

MARK: And now we laughing about chow mein sandwich. But, I mean, that's our business. It put a lot of kid through college so they can find a better job now, get them some better education.

MIZES-TAN: In many ways, it's the classic story of any immigrant reaching for the American dream. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Mizes-Tan in Fall River, Mass.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.