Chow Mein Sandwich - Gastro Obscura

Prepared Foods

Chow Mein Sandwich

Crispy noodles meet a sea of gravy inside a hamburger bun.

The crispy, gravy-laden Chow Mein sandwich is a coveted comfort food in several New England towns. The hybrid sandwich’s presence is so entrenched in the community that it appears on school lunch menus, and when a fire threatened the production of the sandwich’s special noodles, a public outcry brought them back. 

The craze began when Frederick Wong, a Cantonese immigrant, got into the family restaurant business in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the 1920s. Wong realized that New Englanders were particularly fond of gravies, so he crafted a sandwich that combined his own distinctive Chow Mein noodles with minced meat, a thick layer of gravy (made with celery, bean sprouts, and onion), and a hamburger bun. His Oriental Chow Mein company has been known for it ever since.

The sandwich proved irresistible, especially for immigrants from Ireland, Canada, and England who had come to Massachusetts to work in neighboring textile factories. For five cents, the Chow Mein sandwich, often coupled with French Fries and an orange soda, became the go-to, cheap, filling meal for Fall River residents. The Chow Mein sandwich made its way to nearby Chinese restaurants and as far as Nathan’s Famous restaurant in Coney Island, Brooklyn.

While there are many ways to customize a Chow Mein sandwich (with or without meat and vegetables, or opting for shrimp), it’s Fall River’s noodles—thin, deep-fried, and extra crispy—that make it unique. Purists swear by the company’s Hoo-Mee Chow Mein Mix, sold with a gravy packet and noodles inside bright yellow boxes. When a 2009 fire burned the factory, Barbara Wong, Frederick’s daughter-in-law, didn’t know when she’d re-open—until people started calling her house, asking when the noodles were coming back. Other noodles just weren’t cutting it, and the flow of noodles resumed within six months.

The Chow Mein sandwich remains a summer staple in southeastern Massachusetts and several towns in Rhode Island, like Warren and Pawtucket. At its best, cooking softens the crispy noodles slightly, and the gravy congeals to hold together this sumptuous feast.

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