Loaded with savory, saucy bean sprouts and barely contained by a modest hamburger bun, the chop suey sandwich at the Salem Lowe restaurant is a micro-regional curiosity and a North Shore icon. Locals and visitors to Salem, Massachusetts, have been enjoying this summertime staple for decades, dispensed from a modest takeout window located in scenic Salem Willows park.
Current owner David Yee dates his iconic restaurant back to 1912; on August 14, he will close it for good, ending a long legacy of chop suey sandwiches by the sea.
Not to be confused with Fall River’s chow mein sandwich — which includes crispy noodles and features a brown gravy — the chop suey sandwich is almost entirely made of bean sprouts, plus bits of chicken, in a mild, glossy sauce thickened with cornstarch. It can be found in a few other spots in Salem that remain in operation, such as Kiki’s and Mei Lee Express, but Salem Lowe’s version is what people talk about when they talk about chop suey sandwiches.
On a recent evening, one bite transported me back to the Chinese American restaurants of my youth, where, in a time-honored Jewish ritual, I often spent Sunday nights with my great uncle and aunt, Mickey and Bobbie.
Bobbie, 84, is from Salem and fondly recalls eating chop suey sandwiches at the Salem Willows in the 1940s. She refers to them as “chop suey rolls” and remembers them as “awful” — but quickly adds, “I used to love getting them.” At her urging, I drove up to try one, along with Salem Lowe’s other specialty, the pepper steak sandwich: slices of beef with green bell pepper in a brown gravy.
It was a nostalgic scene. The Salem Willows, perched above a cove, is a quintessential New England summer park, with an old-timey arcade and vendors selling fried clams and ice cream. Anchoring one end is Salem Lowe, which doesn’t look 110 years old, but it doesn’t look new, either. One diner, Paula D., had driven from out of town to have a chop suey sandwich (and a pepper steak) one last time. “I grew up in Salem,” she said. “I said to [my husband], we’ve gotta come down before they close.”
Chop suey takes a variety of 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 the Chinese American chop suey.) Chow mein, which includes noodles, can be similar to chop suey. At Salem Lowe, the two are basically the same, Yee says, but for chow mein, “we cut the vegetables a little bit differently.”
The chop suey sandwich — with a price that feels like a relic of another time, $2.94 — is singular, though it evokes other difficult-to-eat delights like the sloppy joe. Bobbie remembered correctly that Salem Lowe serves its sandwiches with a fork, but I started off eating mine like a taco, with the top bun cradling the chop suey filling. The mild-flavored mixture has notes of chicken, celery, and a general umami, while the well-cooked bean sprouts provide a subtle textural counterpart to the soft bun. Pepper steak ($4.30) has a bit more punch, with an assertive gravy, meaty flavor, and plentiful green peppers. It also seems slightly more at home in the hamburger bun.
While an exact origin story for these sandwiches is tough to pinpoint, Chinese American restaurants in the early- and mid-20th century sometimes tried to appeal to Western tastes by serving certain dishes between buns or bread. St. Louis, Missouri, has the St. Paul sandwich (egg foo young with lettuce, mayo, and pickles on white bread); Fall River’s chow mein sandwich follows a similar pattern. Chop suey and pepper steak sandwiches at Salem Lowe must be considered in this context — at once hyperlocal and nationally relevant, indispensable to the story of Chinese cuisine in the United States.
Yee has been glad to see ample community support in Salem Lowe’s final days and looks forward to retiring despite being one of the last remaining 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 food; Salem Lowe introduced it to her. I felt lucky to close the circle, even if I’ll never eat a chop suey sandwich again.