St. Louis immigrants created the St. Paul sandwich 80 years ago — Now it helps define our cuisine
After leaving a war-torn Vietnam in 1978, Qui Tran and his parents spent years in refugee camps before eventually settling in St. Louis.
Qui's mother, Lee Tran, wanted to open a restaurant — but there wasn’t a single Vietnamese restaurant in the city at the time. There were, however, a lot of Chinese restaurants, which were known as chop sueys.
“At that time, my mother figured out, well, we need to do Chinese food because that's what’s selling,” Tran says.
There was something else they noticed immediately. Nearly all of the Chinese restaurants in St. Louis sold this one specific dish: the iconic St. Paul sandwich.
In a St. Paul sandwich, a hot, crispy egg foo young patty is nestled between two soft slices of white bread, topped with pickles, lettuce, tomato and a slather of creamy mayo.
In addition to being delicious, it was the sandwich's affordability that made it so popular. A normal order of egg foo young costs around $11, but the St. Paul sandwich can be yours for a mere $6.
“We knew we needed to put it on the menu because we’d seen it at other chop sueys,” Tran says. “Usually with Asians, it's just kind of like, ‘Oh, this works. Let's try it.’”
In 1982, the Trans opened a Chinese chop suey called China Wall, with the St. Paul sandwich on their menu.
No one knows for sure how the St. Paul sandwich came into being. Famous American chef James Beard hypothesized that the St. Paul is actually a play on the Denver sandwich, created decades prior by Chinese chefs cooking in logging camps.
But the most popular theory declares that the sandwich was invented in the 1940s by Steven Yuen, owner of the Park Chop Suey restaurant in St. Louis.
Yuen intended to create something unique yet familiar, in hopes that it would bring more Missourians into his restaurant. And he named the dish after his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota.
The St. Paul sandwich isn't the only dish of its kind. It also bears some resemblance to the chow mein sandwich, a popular Chinese American dish that originated in New England in the 1930s or 1940s, where fried chow mein noodles are covered in brown gravy and placed on a hamburger bun.
For these sandwiches, their rise in popularity came during a time of enormous anti-Asian racism in the mid-1900s, when many Americans were unaccustomed to and suspicious of Asian cuisine.
“It tells a story of immigrants who arrived in a new place and cooked to survive,” says Jennifer 8. Lee, producer of the documentary “The Search for General Tso.”
Like these sandwiches, Chinese American chop suey was also a business tactic, designed to cater to American taste buds. Lee says the recipe always includes a familiar meat like chicken or pork, and crispy vegetables like snow peas, water chestnuts and bean sprouts that are "just exotic enough" without being "too weird."
“Chop suey became this dish that carried the popularity of Chinese restaurants across the country,” Lee says.
Except in Chinese, chop suey translates to “odds and ends” — so Lee says it would almost be like if Americans coined a hit dish in China called “leftovers."
“Chop suey, as I like to say, is the biggest culinary joke that one culture has played on another,” Lee says. “It's this package of the familiar and the foreign that are kind of spun together and then sold to the American public. And that's the formula you see over and over again.”
When Tran’s family opened their Chinese chop suey in the early 1980s, it didn’t go as well as they hoped. It was hard for their restaurant to break into a market that so many other people had a hold on.
“But the great thing about that is it led my mom to be like, ‘Well, we're Vietnamese. Why don't we do Vietnamese food?’” he says. "And in 1985, we started the first Vietnamese restaurant in St. Louis."
Over the last 36 years, the St. Paul sandwich has been a constant at Mai Lee, where the Tran family still sells Chinese food in addition to Vietnamese food. In fact, they doubled down: In addition to the original version, they now offer six other St. Paul sandwiches, including one with barbecue pork and another with shrimp.
Tran says they don't regularly eat the sandwich themselves — but every once in a while, the entire family will get a craving.
“When I make one, I have to make multiple, because everyone else is like, ‘You know what? That sounds great,'" Tran explains. "And then when you do eat it, it's very nostalgic.”
Eight decades after its creation, the St. Paul sandwich is still sold in restaurants all over St. Louis. Some consider it the most iconic sandwich in Missouri history.
While the St. Paul sandwich started out as a survival tactic for immigrants, somewhere along the way it became a part of the state's culinary identity.
“It’s a St. Louis thing,” Tran says. “It was made here. It has this history, you know. It would have never been created if we were never here.”
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