How The Chow Mein Sandwich Claimed A Small Slice Of New England History
Imagine a sandwich that wasn’t so much sandwich as it was a noodle dish, and you’d have what Fall River locals call the Chow Mein Sandwich. It's a quirky-looking sandwich, featuring a bed of fried Chow Mein noodles with gravy poured over it, topped with a simple, no-frills hamburger bun. The dish has been a long-running specialty of Chinese restaurants in the area for decades.
"We have people come from New York, Chicago, if they're in this area, and it's so funny, they will whisper to the server, do you have those burger sandwiches? I said you mean the Chow Mein sandwich? Yes, we do," said Regina Mark, the co-owner of Mee Sum Restaurant in Fall River. Mee Sum is one of the most popular places to get this kind of sandwich, and they've been serving it up to locals and visitors alike for over fifty years.
But the sandwich is more than just a local oddity. It's a piece of history that points to the city's patterns of immigration. The main reason for the sandwich's rise to popularity in the early 1900s was spurred by Fall River's factory worker population.
"Fall River was very booming with factories, textile industries, and mostly a lot of workers," Mark said. "That's why the Chow Mein sandwich sold over here."
According to anthropology professor Imogene Lim, the sandwich originated from earlier waves of Chinese immigration to Fall River. Lim studied the sandwich for her dissertation at Brown University.
"Well let's put it this way, I consider myself THE expert on the Chow Mein sandwich, and when I was studying it, my friends dubbed me 'The Chow Mein sandwich chick,'" she said.
Chinese immigrants first started arriving in Fall River in the late 1800s. Many were coming from the west coast after having worked on the country's transcontinental railroad, but they were being pushed out by hostility around the Chinese Exclusion Act. They came to cities on the east coast like Fall River, looking for business opportunities.
"Many Chinese ended up opening up laundries, laundries did not require a lot of language expertise," Lim said. "And then there were tea shops in the back of laundries, and after a certain amount of time, you started getting restaurants."
But of course, the success of any restaurant business was dependent on its ability to sell food. At the time, Fall River was a textile mill town mostly staffed by factory workers immigrating from Poland, Ireland and French Canada, and so Chinese restaurants adapted.
"So again, if you're thinking [European] immigrant groups, what do they know about Chinese food? But they know something called a sandwich," Lim said. "So a sandwich becomes something accessible to them as a way to ease in that notion of Chinese cuisine."
Chinese restaurant owners realized that if they put a hamburger bun on top, they could make an unfamiliar dish seem more approachable to the region's European immigrants. At the peak of its popularity, the Chow Mein sandwich’s main draw was its accessibility. In a working class city, the sandwich was filling, quickly made and also cheap, it cost just a nickel. In the end, Fall River's immigration created something that was neither Chinese, nor Irish, or Polish or French.
"The identity is American, but uniquely Fall River because of the mixture of populations in that locale," Lim said.
Back at MeeSum, Regina Mark demonstrated how a proper Chow Mein sandwich is made today. It includes dipping Fall River's specialty Chow Mein noodles into a fryer, then topping them with the restaurant's special gravy sauce and a healthy heaping of chicken, and then popping the signature bun on top. This method ensures that the sandwich's noodles absorb just a little of the gravy, but not so much that it'll get soggy.
Dave Lussier grew up in Fall River and spent his childhood eating Chow Mein sandwiches with his family. He said it's the noodles in the Chow Mein sandwich that are bought specifically from the Oriental Chow Mein company based in Fall River, that make the sandwiches unreplicable anywhere else.
"So you get the special noodles, they give you a lot of chicken, it's delicious," Lussier said. "You know, it's kind of a joke that it's a sandwich because you can't pick it up."
For a true Fall River touch, he said to top the sandwich 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. Mark said that in the end, though the sandwich may seem an odd creation by today's culinary standards, it holds a special place in her family's history in the city.
"Now we're laughing about the Chow Mein sandwich, right? But I mean, that's our business, it put a lot of kids through college so they can find a better job now," Mark said. "Get themselves a better education."