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Dec 25, 2009 12:33 AM

Informal poll-- how many New York Chowhounds realize that if you order "chow mein" in New York you're actually getting chop suey? [moved from Manhattan]

This has been bugging me for years, and I'd love to know your opinions.

First, my Chow cred. I grew up in New Jersey eating Chinese food my whole life. I now live in Los Angeles, am married to a Taiwanese woman, have spent several months traveling and eating all throughout China and Taiwan, and I speak Mandarin.

After many years of traveling and eating across this country and around the world, I came to see that the same Chinese-American dish ordered in Topeka is not necessarily the same as the same dish ordered in New York (or Beijing).

When I came to LA well over a decade ago, I remember ordering "chicken chow mein" and was surprised to have gotten not the soupy gravy with meat and vegetables with crunchy noodles, but rather a dish of stir-fried noodles, veggies and meat. (This is what I would have called "lo mein" back home).

Eventually I came to the odd, ground-shaking conclusion that in New York City (or New Jersey), when you order "chow mein" you get what Topekans, for example, would call chop suey. When I learned to speak Mandarin, I discovered that "chow mian" literally means "stir fried noodles", not "thickened soupy mess of veggies and meat over rice with a few crunchy deep-fried wontons sprinkles over the top".

Why or how this widespread misapplication occurred is an utter mystery to me, and if anyone here can enlighten me I'd love to know. Does it not seem insane to anyone else that this is so deeply embedded in the food consciousness of New Yorkers, and that there is no attempt being made to educate people or correct it?

As a kid I grew up eating "chicken chow mein", never realizing that I was essentially doing the equivalent of going into an Italian place, ordering a pizza, and getting a chicken parm. But the thing is, the Italian owner knows I want chicken parm, because people have been asking for pizza and getting chicken parms for so long that it's just expected.

It's lunacy, I tells ya!

Your thoughts?

Mr Taster

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  1. My thoughts as a long-gone but native New Yorker.... Why in the world would anyone even order those 2 abominations when there are an infinite number of superior Chinese dishes????? Even 50 years ago we had Cantonese moo goo gai pen and mu shi pork, and that was in Brooklyn!

    3 Replies
    1. re: Steveinjapan

      100% seconded.
      I don't think I've even thought about chow mein or chop suey for 30 years. Horrendous glop.

      1. re: gordeaux

        You should come to Toronto, and try Cantonese Chow Mein. It is a bed of egg noodles which are boiled first, and then quickly fried in the wok. I like the cantonese version because it contains a mixture of meat, all of it stir fried with vegetables like water chestnuts, broccoli, carrots, etc. The meat usually contains chicken, shrimp, and bbq pork. If you're lucky, you get scallops as well.

        It's not at all "soupy" or "gloppy" -it has no sauce to speak of, and its moistness comes from the little bit of oil it was fried in. It doesn't come with those deep fried crunchy noodles.It gets its crispness from the water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, etc. Its one of our favourite dishes. Chicken chow mein is boring by comparison.

        1. re: FrankD

          This is more or less my experience of Cantonese Chow Mein when ordered in NYC's Chinatown for the past 40 years.

    2. The original comment has been removed
      1. Growing up in NY my favorite school lunch was CCM, that dish with the gloppy veggies, chicken served on rice with crunchy noodles. My grandfather had a restaurant in Columbus, OH and CCM was the same dish. La Choy (canned Chinese food) has Chicken Chow Mein and that's what it is too.

        My experience in NYC Chinatown was "Lo Mein" which was stir fried whatever with noodles...same as Chicken Chow Mein you'd get in Los Angeles, stir fried with noodles.

        My first experience ordering "Lo Mein" in Los Angeles was a shocking surprise to get a pile of plain noodles topped with the meat of your choice say char siu and a side of plain broth.

        BTW: Paul's Kitchen in downtown LA has the best old school BBQ pork chow mein around.

        1 Reply
        1. hong kong style chow mein has crispy noodles

          5 Replies
            1. re: Mr Taster

              It is served differently in different restaurants. That's why this and the other posts that fourunder has linked to are topics of discussion.


              Hong Kong Style is crispy noodles, Cantonese style is stir fried noodles.

              1. re: Mr Taster

                they're crispy, but they're not canned La Choy noodles or anything like that

              2. re: thew

                In Los Angeles Hong Kong "style" means those thin chow mein noodles from my observation.

                1. re: thew

                  Hong kong style chow mein is a fried noodle 'cake' with vegetably gravy over top.


                  It's a wholly different animal than the new york chow mein that is being discussed here. I think the idea is to top a meat & vegetable stir-fry with crunchy noodles.


                2. I think the mid-western Chinese style chow mein is because 50+ years ago there were no fresh or soft Chinese noodles available in those regions, only those crunchy chow mein noodles. Chinese food probably didn't become a recognized main stream cuisine in the mid-west until maybe the mid 1940's. My grandfather's Chinese restaurant in Columbus 50+ years ago (he had two restaurants in Columbus and one in Cleveland) didn't have soft noodle dishes, only those crunchy chow mein noodles. We loved going to the kitchen and snacking on them all day, like potato chips. My brother who lives in Ohio said he didn't have access to fresh chow mein noodles until maybe 30 years ago.

                  True, there is a misapplication of terms, but they will never change.