I got a chop suey sandwich for Father’s Day
Beloved Salem Willows staple to dissapear
My family, bless them, took me to Salem Willows and treated me to a chop suey sandwich in celebration of Father’s Day. Unfortunately, it might be my last one.
Okay, that is a lot to unpack. First of all, you’re probably wondering where and what Salem Willows may be. Second of all, you have to be pondering how “chop suey” and “sandwich” could possibly be combined together. Finally, you might have been alarmed by my “last one” statement. Rest assured, I’m in fine health and hope to be around for plenty more Father’s Days. The chop suey sandwich’s days are numbered, however.
When people ask me what my home park is, I typically say Canobie Lake Park or Six Flags New England. But really, it’s Salem Willows. Located on a peninsula in Salem, Massachusetts (yes, that Salem), I’ve been going to the spot since I was a toddler.
It is named for its stately willow trees, which were planted in the early 1800s and provide wonderful shade. That, combined with its ocean breezes, makes Salem Willows a delightful place to be on hot summer days. The Naumkeag Street Railway, which operated trolleys that connected the Willows to downtown Salem, opened an amusement park on the peninsula in 1880. Although it is not recognized as a surviving trolley park, it probably should be by my estimation.
Granted, the 35-acre seaside spot barely qualifies as an amusement park today. The strip of buildings that line its promenade include an antique carousel, three kiddie rides, a couple of arcades, and a handful of dining joints. One of them is Salem Lowe, which serves Chinese food.
Housed in a nondescript building with barely a nod to marketing, there is almost always a line of customers at its takeout window. Some of them are there to order lo mein, combination plates, fried rice or other fare typically found at American Chinese restaurants. But many of them have made the pilgrimage to order a curiosity that’s tucked away on its funky, hand-lettered menu board: the chicken chop suey sandwich.
So, what exactly is a chop suey sandwich? It’s pretty much what you might think it would be: bean sprouts and a few hints of chicken mixed in a gummy, clear sauce that’s unceremoniously plopped down on a pedestrian hamburger bun. For an extra few cents, I get mine with crunchy dried noodles that add a bit of texture. I then douse it with soy sauce.
Although it’s ostensibly a sandwich, neither I nor anybody I know would dare to pick it up with two hands and try to eat it as such. Anyone foolish enough to attempt that would likely end up with a lapful of chop suey. Instead, it’s best attacked with a plastic fork.
Speaking of fathers, my family had an annual ritual that involved the eatery. Back in the day, it was open year round instead of the seasonal schedule it has adhered to more recently. For some odd reason, every winter my dad would get a hankering for a chop suey sandwich from Salem Lowe. My mom would remind him that he wasn’t really all that crazy about them, but there was no stopping him. So we’d all pile into my dad’s powder blue Chrysler New Yorker and head over to a desolate Salem Willows, invariably on a blustery, snowy day in February.
We would dutifully order our sandwiches and about ten seconds into eating his, my dad, with some gooey bean sprouts hanging out of one corner of his mouth, would get this look on his face like he had just chugged some unadulterated lemon juice mixed with vinegar. “See,” my mother would chide him, “you don’t like them.” Nevertheless, we’d find ourselves back at Salem Lowe the following winter.
But here’s the thing. I wouldn’t say that I love the taste of a chop suey sandwich either. I dare say that virtually everyone who lives on Boston’s North Shore would agree with me. But we all love the idea of the chop suey sandwich. We love its weirdness; we love that it heralds warm weather after a long, hard winter; we love the summer tradition of ordering it from the window in the drab, tan building and then searching, often in vain, for a bench without seagull poop on which to eat the bizarre (or, as we Boston-area “R” deniers like to say, “wicked bazah”) concoction.
It’s a tradition we are going to have to forego, however. After about fifty years of slinging chop suey, proprietor David Yee is going to hang up his apron and retire. And speaking of fathers, he says his kids aren’t interested in laboring over a wok, so he can’t pass Salem Lowe on to the next generation.
“They have their own careers,” says Yee. “They don’t want to spend the long hours that we spend at the restaurant.” He can’t find anybody to purchase the business either, so, regrettably, Salem Lowe is set to close in August.
I asked Yee where the concept of the chop suey sandwich came from, and he said he has no idea. He inherited it when he bought the business, which dates back to the 1930s. I don’t have any idea either, of course, but I do recall visiting the original Nathan’s at Coney Island many years ago and seeing a vintage menu sign that included items it no longer served, including fried oysters and…chop suey sandwiches. I was astonished. Perhaps chop suey sandwiches were a seaside park delicacy at one time. Or maybe, as with many things in the amusement industry, it originated at Coney Island, and Salem Lowe decided to copy it. Who knows? It could be the other way around.
Oddly, for a few years, there were two joints serving Chinese food at Salem Willows, and they both offered chop suey sandwiches. Now there will be none.
“It will be emotional when it’s time to close,” Yee told me with a hint of wistfulness in his voice. The man has spent a lifetime delighting his customers with the peculiar comfort food. It’s clear he wishes that he could keep going, or at least, that somebody could carry the culinary torch.
“I think a lot of people will be sad,” adds Yee. I know that I will. But next Father’s Day and in the years to come, I’ll think about his Chinese food stand and long for some bland chop suey served on a hamburger bun–just like my dad.
Have you ever had the good fortune of trying a chop suey sandwich? Or, have you seen a chop suey sandwich served anywhere else? (I’ve heard that there may be a restaurant in Fall River, Massachusetts that offers them as well as a stand at Old Orchard Beach in Maine.) Do you have any odd food items you found at amusement parks or distinctive regional dishes you want to share? Please chime in.
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