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Fall River’s Famous Chow Mein Sandwich

When 17-year-old Barbara Wong arrived in Fall River, Mass., after World War II, she could hardly have known she would become the pillar of the city’s most treasured culinary tradition: the chow mein sandwich.

If you’re not from southeastern Massachusetts or Rhode Island, you probably never heard of the chow mein sandwich. It’s served on a hamburger bun with chow mein noodles and a brown gravy made with onions, celery and bean sprouts, maybe with shrimp or beef or pork. You can order it strained – without meat or vegetables – or unstrained.

During the ‘30s, the chow mein sandwich was a feature of American Chinese food. They were sold along the East Coast as far south as Brooklyn, N.Y., where Nathan’s Famous sold them at Coney Island. They were a favorite of students and textile mill workers, who could sit down at a Chinese restaurant or an American lunch counter and get a cheap and filling sandwich for a nickel. A meatless version would be sold for Catholics on Fridays.

They were especially popular in Fall River, where one large Chinese restaurant sold close to two million of them during its 40 years in business, according to Imogene Lim, a food researcher at Malaspina University College.

The Chow Mein Sandwich

Barbara Wong came to Fall River to reunite with her father, who she only knew through letters. Five years after her arrival, Barbara met Albert Wong, the son of the owner of the Oriental Chow Mein Company. He brought her to the brick factory on Eighth Street in Fall River.

Albert’s father Frederick Wong had left Canton, China, in 1926 to study at Salem State University. He stopped in Fall River to visit an uncle who owned the Hong Kong Restaurant. Frederick decided he’d rather go into the restaurant business. He spent the next 10 years frying noodles in the back of the restaurant, saving to start his own business.

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Crucial ingredient of the Fall River chow mein sandwich

The Fall River textile mills employed a large immigrant population, mostly from Quebec, Ireland and England. Like most Chinese immigrant cooks, Frederick Wong tailored his food to the taste of the area’s population. After 10 years in the restaurant business, he knew what appealed to local tastes: chow mein, with its soft vegetables in a brown sauce that resembled Yankee cooking.

He opened the the Oriental Chow Mein Company in the brick building on Eighth Street in 1938. From there he made chow mein mix, crispy noodles and bean sprouts. At first he sold only to local restaurants. But just before World War II,  he started to package the crunchy chow mein noodles and a packet of gravy in bright yellow boxes under the Hoo-Mee brand name. The timing was perfect: In 1942 chow mein was added to the U.S. Army cookbook.

It was the distinctive crunch and flavor of the Hoo-Mee chow mein noodles that ensured the chow mein sandwich would remain a favorite in the Fall River area long after it faded elsewhere. So did the need for cheap and filling food in a city that never recovered from the Great Depression.

Fall River native Elise Johnson remembers the staple meal: chow mein sandwich, French fries and an orange soda. Popular chef Emeril Lagasse, who also grew up in Fall River, has expressed his love for the chow mein sandwich. They were a part of the Fall River school lunch menu well into the 1990s.

'I thought it was great'

It was the early 1950s when Albert brought Barbara to see the family business. "I thought it was great," she said.

Barbara married Albert in 1953. She also married into the family business. Albert took over from his father, churning out Hoo-Mee chow mein noodles until his death in the 1990s. Then Barbara joined the business with her brothers-in-law and became the gregarious, well-loved face of the Oriental Chow Mein Company, greeting customers with hugs.

It is the only company that makes chow mein noodles in the region. When a fire in 2009 destroyed the factory on Eighth Street, Barbara Wong was besieged by customers wanting to know if she would rebuild. She got so many calls she disconnected her business phone. The calls came to her house. People stopped her on the street wanting to know when the noodles would be back. Restaurants reported they were losing business because they had to buy their chow mein noodles from Boston and New York.

Six months later, the Oriental Chow Mein Company was back in business. The Fall River chow mein sandwich was restored to its former glory.

Further Information

You can order Hoo-Mee Chow Mein noodles directly from the company at Oriental Chow Mein Company, 42 Eighth Street, Fall River MA 02720.

If you enjoyed this story, you may want to read about another New England culinary favorite: the chop suey sandwich of Salem, Mass. Click here for the article.

This story was updated in 2017.

 

36 comments

  1. Bobo Leach

    I remember the chop suey sandwich at Salem Willows 🙂

    • Me too! My parents ate them when they were a courting couple and introduced them tome. I thought they sounded gross, but boy, they sure tasted good.

    • The Chop Suey is NOTHING like the Chow Mein. They are two different things completely. However, they do make a combination of Chop Suey & Chow Mein mix sandwich that is also delicious because it’s like having extra bean sprouts.

  2. Dana McPhee

    The chop suey sandwiches at Salem Willows that Bobo mentioned, have been, by local lore, around since the early 1900’s…don’t have any real dates, but I’ve eaten them as early as the late fifties…they probably fit into the same era as the chow mein sandwiches…

  3. Molly Landrigan

    They sound delicious. Wonder if I could find a restaurant in the Lakes Region of NH that serves them. Does anyone know?

    • Molly you can call Monday- Saturday 9:30-4:30 pm we ship nation wide viva UPS the number is (508)675-7711

      • Does anyone know how long the shelf life is of the Hoo Mee chow mein noodles? I want to buy maybe 20 pounds and bring them to the mid-west. I’ll store them in mylar bags, with oxygen absorbers, and that bag will be placed in a bucket…. all stored in my cool dry basement. I figure 1 gallon buckets will work nicely, and I can open one up at a time to eat 🙂
        Would they store for a few years in that manner?

        thanks!
        Mike B

        • I have learned from experience, the noodles are actually deep fried so they will go rancid if stored for to long.

        • Mike, they last a long time as long as they stay sealed up tight. They are just a very crispy noodle, so as long as no moisture gets in, they should be fine. I love them ! (And I live in Fall River, so I wouldn’t lie about them !!!)

  4. I have never been to Massachusetts, but my dad grew up there. Every time my grandparents would go home from San Diego to visit they would bring us this chow mein along with B&M beans, jars of fully marshmallows and a number of other things. I may not have grown up there but I definitely enjoy the food from there and it always brings back great memories when I think about my grandparents. I just recently ordered my first case of the chow mein and to my pleasant surprise my children love it as well. This will be a item that will always been in this family no matter where we live

  5. Both of my parents grew up in Fall River. I remember going out and having chow mein sandwiches when we would visit relatives. they were delicious. I also remember eating chorizo -we always pronounced it chareese- because of the Portuguese influence in the city. Comfort food.

    • Try another fall river thing…have one of those chow mein sandwiches with chourico as the meat in it. So good!

    • I personally grew up in Fall River and the food in that city just can’t be beat! So many nationalities, so many options. The chow mien sandwiches are unbelievable and even out of the city you can ask for them “Fall River style”

  6. Care packages from Back East~ I remember crunchy chow mein noodles and gravy, coffee jello, coffee syrup and Gaspar’s linguisa.

  7. In the early 60’s after CYO dances we would get $.25 chow main sandwiches and devour them while we waited for our parental pick up on Taunton Green, a city not too far from Fall River. Good memories.

    • Barbara Reid Hickman

      OMG I AM FROM RAYNHAM, AND I USED TO GO TO THE CYO DANCES IN TAUNTON. AFTER THE DANCE WE USED TO GO TO THE ORIENT RESTAURANT WHICH WAS RIGHT ON THE TAUNTON GREEN AND PAY JUST .25 FOR THE CHOW MEIN SANDWICH. THEY WERE SO GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD! THE ORIENT IS NOT THERE ANYMORE, BUT CHINA GARDEN IN RAYNHAM HAS A REALLY GOOD ONE.

  8. I used to get my chow mein sandwiches at the eagle Chinese restaurant in fall river for a quarter in the mid 60’s.
    the chow mein would completely fill the dinner plate and the bun was to sop up the gravy and they were delicious.

    • Hi Richard I was just wondering if you remember a place called China City In Fall River and if you do just where was it.I am doing a paper on Chinese restaurants. Thank you for your help.

  9. I have been dying for a chow mein sandwich for years. I used to get them at a chinese restaurant in New Bedford starting around 1947. Was so happy to find this site. Now I can fill my bucket list with chow mein sandwiches.

  10. Francis P. Mangan Jr

    Remember it all too well. Don’t know what I miss the
    most, the great chow mien, or the Portuges
    Charees and Linguisa !!!

  11. Does anyone know how long the shelf life is of the Hoo Mee chow mein noodles? I want to buy maybe 20 pounds and bring them to the mid-west. I’ll store them in mylar bags, with oxygen absorbers, and that bag will be placed in a bucket…. all stored in my cool dry basement. I figure 1 gallon buckets will work nicely, and I can open one up at a time to eat 🙂
    Would they store for a few years in that manner?

    thanks!
    Mike B

    • my mother who lives in fl. takes the noodles and mix back with her
      and stores them in their orgnial packages in the freezer. She has had
      no problems storing them this way for over a yer.

      and gravy mix and puts

      it in the freezer 9
      9

    • my mother who lives in fl. takes the noodles and mix back with her
      and stores them in their orgnial packages in the freezer. She has had
      no problems storing them this way for over a year.

    • Yvette Galipeau

      We buy in bulk whenever we are near Fall River. We store the mix in the freezer. It keeps well. I can’t say for how long because we eat it pretty quickly

  12. Living in SE MA is definitely a culinary treat. I don’t know what I would do without some of the great local staples we have here. Let me list the ones I can think of- autocrat coffee syrup, Portuguese chorico which is not to be confused with chorizo, marshmallow fluff, hoo-me chow mein which I like to make with wild mushrooms and ground venison, and we can’t forget about lobster and all the fresh local seafood. I’m sure there are many more localities that I can’t think if at the moment. We are truly blessed!!!

  13. In Hawaii, Lo Mein is called Chow Mein! My husband and I were immediately confused and upset when we saw the sign and said “What, no way that’s not Chow Mein! We miss Hoo Mee so much I’m ordering some right now!

  14. I so miss fall river,ma. Food

  15. I/m eating chow mein and clam chowder as I read the article here in Az. I purchase the noodles and gravy in bulk from FAMOUS FOODS in NB.

    Yes the food was great back in FR.

    Nite Owl, Normands & Earnshaw’s, Sam Wongs, China Royal, Mark You’s, McGovern’s. Never ate there but many loved the Uke. So many little Mom & Pops still left in the early 60’s though most gone by the 70’s.

  16. I grew up eating chow mein sandwiches from the Asia restaurant in Fall River on Brightman St. My whole Irish family loved them and my sons also grew up eating them too! I still do LOVE an occasional chowmein sandwich!

  17. My mother and I would go shopping downtown and on the way stop at the China Royal for chow mein sandwiches -. Chow mein with that special brown gravy on a bun..I order it by the large bag now with the gravy mix My grandfather would bring me to the Pleasant Drug on New Boston Rd where he would buy the Sunday paper and we’d have coffee cabinets. On the way home we would stop and get hot cross buns at the A&P. So much fun…It’s nice to know we can still find most of these items after all this time.

  18. where in the Dover, De area can I buy these chow mein noodles?

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