Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >
Dec 17, 2007 08:22 AM

"Chicago Fried Chow Mein": What was it? Do I want to know?

One of our famous local food bloggers (hi, Pats!) recently posted a link to an entry in the LA Public Library's menu archive:

for a Chinese restaurant menu, circa 1946, which refers, among other things, to Chow mein as being available in either of two styles: "Canton, or Chicago Fried".

"Chicago Fried Chow Mein"; sounds either truly wonderfully American, or truly scary, depending on your view.

Anyone know what this was?

r gould-saltman

no avatar

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I don't know what it was, but:
    a) They don't offer it any more, which is indicative of something.
    b) "Chow Mein" served ANY style, is enough to scare me silly.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Tay

      Well, the restaurant in question's long gone, and who knows: MAYBE the secret of "Chicago Fried Chow Mein" is a long-lost culinary revelation! It may have been the 1940's equivalent of that now-popular So. Cal. artery-clogger, "carne asada fries", which, of course, include cheese, guac, and sour cream.

      Who knows what we might be missing? Foodies are clearly interested in reviving things on the drink menu (and it appears that "The Forbidden City" mixed a mean drink) so why not the rest of it?

      1. re: silverlakebodhisattva

        Ok... Fair enough, I'll concede on a) , but I'm sticking to b) :-}

        1. re: Tay

          I was surprised to see "Chicago-Style" fried rice on a takeout menu from a not-too-classy Chinese restaurant in Cambridge. When I asked what it was, they told me it had more sauce, and so was darker (when it arrived, it was, in fact, a very dark brown fried rice). Perhaps this could shed some light on the Chicago Fried Chow Mein?

          1. re: pamiam

            pamiam (what a cute screen:-})
            I'm not sure why they refer to it as Fried" just b/c it looks darker, thus "Fried?" The fact that they add more sauce probably refers to soy sauce. I would think that would make it somewhat salty.
            I'm glad you posted this. I've never heard of it and silverlake's calm logic had me half way to accepting it. :-} I order yang chow fried rice just to avoid the extra soy sauce, so I'll pass on the 'fried' chow mein...

    2. Chicago style noodles - Deep fry. Loosen your bundle of noodles and lower all into a wok of hot oil. When noodles are light, crispy brown, use a big strainer and remove from oil & drain. Set aside. Place noodles in large serving platter few minutes before eating. Pour your prepared meat, vegetable, soy sauce & salt in gravy mixture over top of noodles.

      i found this from:

      I had also found some menus online for chinese restaurants that offer Chicago Chow Mein... Apparantly that means the noodles are deep fried...YUMMY!

      10 Replies
      1. re: tdiprincess

        Well, there you go, then; as I kinda suspected, whether you think of this as a long-lost culinary gem, or as the most disgusting grease bomb since whatever fried thing that got Elvis, depends largely on how you feel about deep fried salty stuff generally.

        Gotta say, though, notwithstanding the "gringo-ized" label, I've seen deep-fried noodle nests in the high-end ultra-authentic places in the San gabriel Valley. . .

        1. re: tdiprincess

          Deep fried noodles is pretty standard. Most chinese restaurants ask you if you want pan fried or deep fried (thin egg noodle), when you order chow mein.

          Unless Chicago style uses a different noodle, I can't imagine it anything but a different name to the Cantonese style deep fried method.

          1. re: mphuie

            The pan fried are sometimes advertized as "Singapore style" (at least here in San Francisco)

            1. re: JockY

              Ah Ha!. No wonder I couldn't figure out what this was!
              Here on the East Coast, I've seen it written the same way:
              "Singapore Style"

              1. re: Tay

                OK, now I'm curious: anyone out there who's fluent in Cantonese: is this ("Chicago style" and "Singapore Style" )simply an instance of a change in the anglicization of the same underlying characters in Cantonese?

              2. re: JockY

                Hmm, here in nyc, the only "singapore" noodles I've seen in a cantonese place is Singapore chow mai fun. That stuff is never pan fried.

                1. re: JockY

                  In Honolulu "Singapore Style" are always chow mein but with a spicy (generally curry) sauce. Usually wok/pan fried, not crispy.

                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                    At least in my area (Raleigh, NC), SIngapore noodles are thin rice noodles stir fried with assorted veg and protein of choice, but always with a shockingly yellow curry seasoning.

                2. re: mphuie

                  I've never seen it any other way. I guess MN is close enough to Chicago for it to be standard.

                3. re: tdiprincess

                  That sounds like something out of a La Choy can, so perhaps they should be called "Detroit" style, since that's where La Choy originated.

                4. My Mom's family owned a Chinese restaurant in Chicago around that time, so I asked. Her answer:

                  Lo mein - soft noodles
                  Canton - par-boiled, pan fried to be crispy (gin mein, HK-style or Canton)
                  Chicago - deep fried to puffy, course, usually thicker (think canned Chun King)

                  Chicago noodles, at least at my Mom's family place, were packaged separately and sold to people who put Chop Suey (an American invention) on it, instead of rice.

                  Additional clarity - lo mein can be put in a wok and "stirred" but still remain soft. Many Chinese restaurants deep fried a loose bundle of noodles for gin mein because it's faster, or it's wok fried and looks like deep fried. Chun King was owned by Nabisco until the late-80s and they probably modeled their noodles after "Chicago". My guess is they were cooked this way all over the mid-west and east coast, just not Chicago.

                  BTW, if you think chow mein is scary, you've never had it prepared properly. Like Italian food or any other ethnic food, what's cooked at a restaurant isn't necessarily how you'd make at home.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: ML8000

                    My family had a Chinese take-out in CA for about 45 years. We served chow mein w/deep fried crispy noodles on the side. So this 'Chicago' style was out here as well, just not called that.

                    1. re: justagthing

                      Well, it obviously was called that in LA in 1946.

                      In San Francisco Chinatown 40-50 years ago a lot of places offered a choice of "pan fried" or "crispy". "Pan fired" were soft stir-fired noodles the way chow mein is customarily served in China; I don't recall anybody ever ordering the crispy so I'm not sure what it was, but I always assumed it was like something out of a can.

                      1. re: justagthing

                        Yeah the "Chicago" name is weird. The family didn't call it Chicago style but after talking to my mom, given what pan fried was...that's the only thing she could think of. It was the only thing that stuck out that wasn't pure canto cooking.

                        Why it's called Chicago in LA, my guess is someone either ran a place in Chicago and moved to LA or visited and needed a name to note the difference...and perhaps some very minor marketing. My mom said they charged extra for the Chicago noodles and sold a lot.

                        1. re: ML8000

                          My uncle also had a restaurant for about 40 years and they just called it krispy noodles like we did. So 'Chicago' was not a name that we called it nor many places in S. CA. Maybe in N. CA they did, but alas, we would never order the Americanized Chinese food and usually ordered from the menus that were written in Chinese. Also, my grandfather worked in a Chinese restaurant in LA's Chinatown, were he learned most of his art, in the 40's, as a young teen. Slept and worked in the kitchen to make money to send home to China. Fairly typical back then.

                          1. re: ML8000

                            It seems to live on in New England. The first two pages of a Google search yields 9 places to get Chicago Chow Mein or Chicago Style Chow Mein, including 5 in MA, 3 in RI (including the famous Chan's Eggroll and Jazz, and one in Ogonquit ME (The Yum Mee Restaurant).


                      2. It's like a birds nest.

                        1. My local Chinese carryout in Nashua, NH (Pan Asia) offers Chicago Pork, Chicken, Beef and Shrimp Chop Suey, as well as Chicago Pork, Chicken, Beef and Shrimp Chow Mein. I've always been afraid to try them. Maybe I'll have to take the plunge. This place already gives you a bag of deep-fried noodles with every order.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Gin and It

                            sorry to resurrect an old post, but i had always wondered what it meant..I just knew it as the "brown sauce" version of chow mein or chop suey, and was my preffered style...

                            since i moved to connecticut, it seems to not appear on our loacl menus..

                            we..last nite i went to pick up my order at our local take-out; she wanted to be sure i knew i was getting something with a side of crispy noodle in a white sauce(ie not with soft noodle in it)..

                            my reply was "yes i know, but do you make the one with a brown sauce too if i asked"

                            she replied, (and forgive the spelling).."thats CHOW SHEI style"...

                            hmmm..could this then explain "Chicago" (hmm?????) as the american bastardization of this term...seems plausible

                            hope someone sees this post...

                            1. re: fenway68

                              After reading all these posts, here's what I know....

                              Singapore is cellophane noodles, not fried.

                              Cantonese Chow Mein is Egg Noodles cooked, then pan fried crispy on both sides. It is then topped with your preferred meats or seafoods, usually with only one or a few types of bok choy. yu choy or Shanghai Cabbage for contrasting color. It is not a mixed vegetable dish. Brown (Oyster) Sauce for meats, White Sauce for Seafood. It a very common dish in NY Chinatowns and surrounding areas.

                              The Chicago Style Chow Mein is the part traditional. The vegetable components are onions, celery and beansprouts, with chopped /diced chicken atop the vegetables. The inclusion of the Fried Egg Noodles into the dish with the Brown Egg Foo Young Gravy poured over the dish is what made it The Chicago Style......I am sure there are some variations, but I recall seeing this dish prepared, by I believe Emeril Lagasse on one of his specials on The Food Network. It was prepared in this fashion in his hometown of his youth.