The second I saw the exit sign for the city of Fall River Massachusetts, something felt very familiar. Although I only caught passing glances of a skyline dotted with church steeples and a few dormant smokestacks, the town gave off all the feels of a once thriving New England manufacturing city, now past its prime. But that wasn’t what felt familiar, there was something about the name. Maybe I watch too much tv, but Fall River sounded like it could be the setting of every 90’s horror movie. A town you assume is populated with silver tongued high school students being chased by a blood thirsty, ghost-faced serial killer. There's a good chance a secret covenant of well-coiffed warlocks and stunningly beautiful witches are hanging out at the local watering hole and it absolutely, positively sounds like somewhere you don't want to be during a full moon.
Ironically it turns out that while the only monster in town may be the oversized Chicken Chow Mein sandwich, I’m about to tell you about, the town does have a maleficent past. On August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe, a crime she was ultimately acquitted of leaving one of America's most famous murders unsolved. (Her house is now a B&B btw) And for a short period during 1979-1980, a crazed satanic cult wreaked havoc on the town killing 3 people. So, my intuition was kinda right. But don't let any of that scare you, it really is a lovely town, I swear.
Chow Mein ON A SANDWICH?
Chow Mein is a well-known stir-fried noodle dish that was brought over to the US by Chinese immigrants during the California Gold Rush in 1849. It can basically be found in every Chinese food restaurant in the country. But a Chow Mein sandwich is different. With a few exceptions, it's really only available in Fall River and surrounding areas. The "sandwich" consists of rough-cut onions, celery and bean sprouts covered in a thick soy sauce infused gravy. It's topped with crispy deep-fried noodles and usually accompanied with your choice of protein. A heaping spoonful of the stewy-like concoction is ladled onto a hamburger bun overflowing onto the rest of the plate. The result is a tasty, salty, crunchy mess with an interesting texture that's definitely meant to be eaten with a fork. For all intents and purposes, the top of the bun is ornamental, imagine a top hat on a whale. The bottom bun does all the work, soaking up the gravy much like an open-faced turkey sandwich does. I found the best way to attack it was to stab a vegetable, break off some moist bread and scoop up the crispy, gravy covered noodles in one fluid motion. It's served "strained" or "unstrained", meaning you choose how much juice to vegetable ratio is preferred. Like all Chinese food, this can be ordered as takeout, but I can't imagine the experience being the same.
The exact spot and time of origin is uncertain although we know it was eaten by Chinese textile factory workers during the turn of the twentieth century. There are many speculations of who first made it into a sandwich, like the unknown diner in New Bedford who might have provided rolls to sop up the extra gravy. Sadly, we will never know for sure. At Mee Sum Restaurant in Fall River, locals have been enjoying the sandwich for decades and city native Emeril Lagasse has often given them a proper shout out when recalling his culinary memories. Check out his recipe.
At one time, popularity of the sandwich spread outside the area even as far south as Nathan's in Coney Island, although to my knowledge this is no longer a menu item.
Nowadays you can continue to find chow mein sandwiches on restaurant menus throughout Southern Mass and Rhode Island. At Eveyln's Drive In, a 50-year-old seasonal restaurant tucked inside the shore town of Tiverton Rhode Island, locals and vacationers have been pairing their Stuffies (locally sourced quahogs halved and stuffed) and RI chowder(dah) with their delicious chicken and beef chow mein sandwiches. Guy Fieri featured their Lobster chow mein (not sandwich) on an episode of Triple D to rave reviews. As you can see, their sesame buns are bigger and heartier than normal allowing you to at least attempt a sloppy bite as a sandwich before the juices get the better of you. But it's okay to eat with a fork, no one will judge you. 😊
If you are unable to make the trip to Fall River or Tiverton, you can have purchase authentic Hoo-Mee Mix made by the Oriental Chow Mein Company in Fall River since 1926. (I get no compensation for referring this company)
Fall River might not be full of goblins or vampires, but it is full of delicious local foods that you cannot find anywhere else. If the Chow Mein sandwich doesn't give you motivation to trip to this Massachusetts city, come for their chourico (pronounced "shore-eese") aka Portuguese chorizo, pork pies and check out the unique Hot Cheese sandwiches. If you are driving to the Cape, make a quick detour then tell me what you think.