Regina Mark, who runs Mee Sum Restaurant and Lounge with her husband, Kenny, believes the chow mein sandwich was invented in New Bedford, “long ago, when a customer came in and ordered chow mein to take home. But he wasn’t feeling too well, so he asked for bread to go with it. The chef had no bread, so he gave the customer some hamburger buns. The customer returned the next day, feeling well, and happy to say that the buns and the chow mein had made an excellent sandwich.”
If you haven’t eaten your way along the south coast of Massachusetts, the idea of a chow mein sandwich probably sounds wrong. For locals, it’s everyday eats, a dish traditionally served at home, in school lunchrooms, in Chinese restaurants, and at drive-ins – the sort of common food citizens take for granted until they move away and realize how much they miss it.
Mee Sum chow mein, a soft brown gravy laced with celery and onion (and, if you wish, meat) is just fine, but it’s the noodles that make the dish a must-eat. Made since 1926 by Fall River’s Oriental Chow Mein company, they are thin, crisp, and more addictive than peanuts or potato chips. Ladle chow mein atop the bottom half of a burger bun, strew it with an abundance of those fine noodles, then cap the whole thing with the bun’s top and you have a chow mein sandwich.
For most of us, it is knife-and-fork fare. But Mee Sum waitress Sue told us that she has veteran chow mein sandwich eaters who get theirs wrapped and eat the whole thing without benefit of utensils, maybe with only a couple of napkins. Sue explained to us that when the sandwich is securely enclosed in wax paper for even a few minutes the gravy begins to bind it together and the tight wrapper causes the chow mein noodles to steam soft, returning to a state that is something like al dente lo mein. We tried it this way, and it was mischievously delicious, a high-water mark of culturally incorrect Cantonese cuisine – and completely different from the textural drama of the plated version. Mere dilettantes, we had no luck holding it together for more than a couple of bites.
Beyond curious sandwiches, the Mee Sum menu is familiar Cantonese American fare.