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From Far East to Midwest: chop suey's last stand

America’s obsession with chop suey may have ended almost a century ago, but in St. Louis chop suey shops remain in large numbers.  As St. Louis Public Radio’s Joseph Leahy reports, the city is just one of three where this food fad continues to hang on.

Bulletproof plastic windows and St. Paul Sandwiches

On a Friday night Aiden Chen and his wife, Tian, are at work in the kitchen of their Chinese eatery, Dragon Chop Suey, on Kingshighway. Tian cooks. Aiden takes orders and handles money. Patrons order on the other side a bulletproof window.

In St. Louis, there are dozens of chop suey shops like this one: a tiny kitchen behind a thick plastic window that opens to a small room where customers order. Almost all are cash-only. And their menus are basically the same: fried food of Cantonese origin, like sweet and sour pork, orange chicken and crab rangoon.

And then there’s St. Louis’ homegrown chop suey specialty, the St. Paul Sandwich: deep-fried egg foo young on white bread with mayonnaise, onions and bean sprouts. (You can see a photo of the St. Paul Sandwich in the photo section above).

"Exotic" beginnings

At one time chop suey was an American obsession. Early in the 20th Century, Americans of every sort sought out the unusual fare in Chinatowns across the country.

Andrew Coe is the author of Chop Suey – A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.

“It was like sushi is today," Coe says of chop suey. "I mean it was exotic: the restaurants stayed open late so they got an interesting crowd of artists and theater people and the kind of like demimonde of the various big cities these restaurants were in.”

Coe says chop suey emerged in the U.S. during the latter half of the 1800s as Chinese immigrants adapted their cooking to suit American tastes. This typically involved fried bits of meat or vegetables served over rice or noodles usually with a brown starchy sauce.

When St. Louis’ Chinatown, known as “Hop Alley” was leveled in the 1960s to make way for Busch Stadium downtown, many chop suey shop owners spread into surrounding lower-income black neighborhoods where rent was low and demand was high.

Food historian, Andrew Haley is author of Turning the Tables: American Restaurant Culture and the Rise of the Middle Class. He says, as a discriminated population, chop suey restaurateurs flourished because they didn’t discriminate against their customers.

“I think that’s when it becomes a phenomenon of the … I’m going to say the urban ghetto and I’m going to use that term really with some reservation," Haley said. "But the places where the poorer populations, whether they be immigrant or African American – the chop suey restaurants hang on in those neighborhoods.”

Chop suey's last havens

Since its heyday, chop suey has declined, but today still thrives in the neighborhoods of three particular American cities: Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis. 

Google “chop suey” in St. Louis today and you’ll find more than 40 eating listings with “chop suey” in their name.

Coe says one reason chop suey disappeared elsewhere but stuck around in places like St. Louis is that Asian immigration to the Midwest slowed dramatically in the second half of the 1900s.

“That, of course, is unlike particularly the coasts – the east coast and the west coast – where there is a very large Chinese immigrant population in a number of cities," Coe said. "And chop suey has almost disappeared because we have a lot of competition.”

Coe says he sees why chop suey’s stuck around in the Midwest but is less optimistic about its future.

“Well, certainly on the east coast and west coast chop suey is over," Coe said. "I think that maybe you can almost dig the grave for chop suey because there really isn’t even much nostalgia appeal to chop suey. I think it’s going to hang on longer in the Midwest, but I don’t see much of a bright future for chop suey, I’m afraid to say.”

Changing old to new

Don’t tell that to Aiden Chen at Dragon Chop Suey though. He’s just taken over the shop from his uncle who ran it for 30 years. They renovated three months ago and are seeking new business.

“We are younger, you know? We are now 21st Century," Chen said. "So, we take care here – all modern – to change old to new.”

Chen says they’ve recently set up an online ordering website. Also, he hopes they will soon be accepting credit cards.