loaded with savorybean sprouts in sauce and barely contained by a modest hamburger bun, the chop suey sandwich Restaurant Salem Lowe is a micro-regional curiosity and an icon of the Côte-Nord. Locals and visitors to Salem, Mass., have enjoyed this summertime staple for decades, dispensed from a modest take-out window in scenic Salem Willows Park.
Current owner David Yee dates his iconic restaurant to 1912; August 14, he will close it permanentlyending a long legacy of seaside chop suey sandwiches.
Not to be confused with Fall River Chow Mein Sandwich — which includes crispy noodles and brown gravy — the chop suey sandwich is made almost entirely of bean sprouts, along with chunks of chicken, in a sweet, shiny gravy thickened with cornstarch. It can be found in a few other locations in Salem that remain in operation, such as Kiki’s and Mei Lee Expressbut Salem Lowe’s version is what people talk about when they talk about chop suey sandwiches.
One recent night out, a bite transported me to the Chinese-American restaurants of my youth, where, in an age-old Jewish ritual, I often spent Sunday evenings with my great-uncle and aunt, Mickey and Bobbie.
Bobbie, 84, is from Salem and fondly remembers eating chop suey sandwiches at Salem Willows in the 1940s. She calls them “chop suey rolls” and remembers them as “awful – but quickly adds, “I loved having them”. At his request, I drove up to try one, as well as Salem Lowe’s other specialty, the pepper steak sandwich: slices of beef with green pepper in a brown sauce.
It was a nostalgic scene. Salem Willows, perched above a creek, is a quintessential New England summer park, with an old-fashioned arcade and vendors selling fried clams and ice cream. Anchoring one end is Salem Lowe, who doesn’t look 110, but he doesn’t look brand new either. One of the diners, Paula D., had come from out of town to grab a chop suey sandwich (and pepper steak) one last time. “I grew up in Salem,” she said. “I said to [my husband]we have to get down before they close.
chop suey takes various forms and sometimes includes more vegetables or other meats. (New Englanders may also be familiar with “American chop suey“, a regional name for a dish of elbow macaroni with meat sauce – quite different from Chinese-American chop suey.) Chow mein, which includes noodles, can be similar to chop suey. At Salem Lowe, both are basically the same, says Yee, but for the chow mein, “we cut the vegetables a little differently.”
The chop suey sandwich – with a price tag that feels like a relic from another time, $2.94 – is singular, though it brings to mind other hard-to-eat delicacies like sloppy joe. Bobbie correctly remembered Salem Lowe serving his sandwiches with a fork, but I started eating mine like a taco, with the top bun cradling the chop suey filling. The mild-tasting mix has hints of chicken, celery and an overall umami, while the well-cooked bean sprouts provide a subtle textural counterpart to the soft bun. The Pepper Steak ($4.30) packs a little more punch, with a bold sauce, meaty flavor and lots of green peppers. He also seems a bit more at home in hamburger buns.
Although it is difficult to determine the exact origin of these sandwiches, Chinese-American restaurants in the early and mid-20th century sometimes tried to appeal to Western tastes by serving certain dishes between rolls or bread. St. Louis, Missouri, has the Saint Paul sandwich (foo young egg with lettuce, mayo and pickles on white bread); The Fall River chow mein sandwich follows a similar pattern. Salem Lowe’s chop suey and pepper steak sandwiches should be seen in this context – both hyperlocal and nationally relevant, indispensable to the history of Chinese cuisine in the United States.
Yee was happy to see widespread community support in the final days of Salem Lowe and is looking forward to his retirement despite being one of the last stewards of such a unique dish. I didn’t grow up eating chop suey sandwiches, but the nostalgia I felt in Salem was real — my Aunt Bobbie introduced me to Chinese-American cuisine; Salem Lowe introduced him to it. I felt lucky to come full circle, even though I will never eat a chop suey sandwich again.