Loaded with savory, saucy bean sprouts and barely contained by a modest hamburger bun, the chop suey sandwich on the Salem Lowe restaurant is a micro-regional curiosity and a North Shore icon. Locals and guests to Salem, Massachusetts, have been having fun with this summertime staple for many years, distributed from a modest takeout window situated in scenic Salem Willows park.
Present proprietor David Yee dates his iconic restaurant again to 1912; on August 14, he’ll shut it for good, ending an extended legacy of chop suey sandwiches by the ocean.
To not be confused with Fall River’s chow mein sandwich — which incorporates crispy noodles and includes a brown gravy — the chop suey sandwich is nearly fully product of bean sprouts, plus bits of rooster, in a gentle, shiny sauce thickened with cornstarch. It may be present in a couple of different spots in Salem that stay in operation, reminiscent of Kiki’s and Mei Lee Categorical, however Salem Lowe’s model is what individuals speak about once they speak about chop suey sandwiches.
On a current night, one chew transported me again to the Chinese language American eating places of my youth, the place, in a time-honored Jewish ritual, I typically spent Sunday nights with my nice uncle and aunt, Mickey and Bobbie.
Bobbie, 84, is from Salem and fondly remembers consuming chop suey sandwiches on the Salem Willows within the Nineteen Forties. She refers to them as “chop suey rolls” and remembers them as “terrible” — however rapidly provides, “I used to like getting them.” At her urging, I drove as much as attempt one, together with Salem Lowe’s different specialty, the pepper steak sandwich: slices of beef with inexperienced bell pepper in a brown gravy.
It was a nostalgic scene. The Salem Willows, perched above a cove, is a quintessential New England summer season park, with an old-timey arcade and distributors promoting fried clams and ice cream. Anchoring one finish is Salem Lowe, which doesn’t look 110 years outdated, nevertheless it doesn’t look new, both. One diner, Paula D., had pushed from out of city to have a chop suey sandwich (and a pepper steak) one final time. “I grew up in Salem,” she stated. “I stated to [my husband], we’ve gotta come down earlier than they shut.”
Chop suey takes quite a lot of types and generally contains extra greens or different meats. (New Englanders can also be aware of “American chop suey,” a regional identify for a dish of elbow macaroni with meat sauce — fairly totally different from the Chinese language American chop suey.) Chow mein, which incorporates noodles, may be just like chop suey. At Salem Lowe, the 2 are mainly the identical, Yee says, however for chow mein, “we lower the greens somewhat bit in another way.”
The chop suey sandwich — with a value that seems like a relic of one other time, $2.94 — is singular, although it evokes different difficult-to-eat delights just like the sloppy joe. Bobbie remembered accurately that Salem Lowe serves its sandwiches with a fork, however I began off consuming mine like a taco, with the highest bun cradling the chop suey filling. The mild-flavored combination has notes of rooster, celery, and a basic umami, whereas the well-cooked bean sprouts present a refined textural counterpart to the tender bun. Pepper steak ($4.30) has a bit extra punch, with an assertive gravy, meaty taste, and plentiful inexperienced peppers. It additionally appears barely extra at house within the hamburger bun.
Whereas a precise origin story for these sandwiches is hard to pinpoint, Chinese language American eating places within the early- and mid-Twentieth century generally tried to attraction to Western tastes by serving sure dishes between buns or bread. St. Louis, Missouri, has the St. Paul sandwich (egg foo younger with lettuce, mayo, and pickles on white bread); Fall River’s chow mein sandwich follows the same sample. Chop suey and pepper steak sandwiches at Salem Lowe have to be thought-about on this context — without delay hyperlocal and nationally related, indispensable to the story of Chinese language delicacies in america.
Yee has been glad to see ample neighborhood help in Salem Lowe’s ultimate days and appears ahead to retiring regardless of being one of many final remaining stewards of such a novel dish. I didn’t develop up consuming chop suey sandwiches, however the nostalgia I felt in Salem was actual — my aunt Bobbie launched me to Chinese language American meals; Salem Lowe launched it to her. I felt fortunate to shut the circle, even when I’ll by no means eat a chop suey sandwich once more.