There comes a time in life when aging Philadelphians and New Yorkers begin ambling through their respective Chinatowns in search of a childhood favorite, that elusive plate of addictive chow mein, complete with soup, egg roll, rice and a scoop of ice cream (all for 55 cents!). The neon sign in the window may have advertised “CHOP SUEY,” but chow mein on a bed of thin crispy noodles was the ticket. Unfortunately, their creators never wrote a recipe before retiring and their kids had no interest in running a restaurant. But after years of searching and failing to find the exact flavors, I’ve discovered five spots that come close to delivering on the memory. Here’s where to find your chow mein. – Jay Lloyd
The Imperial has been a mainstay of Philadelphia’s Chinatown for over four decades and continues the tradition of authentic Chinese cooking alongside Americanized dishes that lure generations raised on chow mein, chop suey and egg foo young. Here, the chow mein is a cross between the darker, soy sauce-infused New York variety and the lighter Philadelphia style. You’ll find more meat in this traditional vegetable dish; just make sure you have some crispy noodles on the table before ordering, because you’ll want to add them to the mixture. In New York, they would already be on the plate under the veggies. The complete lunch includes soup, an egg roll and fried rice for under $10. The flavors here are great and definitely rekindle childhood memories.
It’s billed as authentic Taiwanese, but the chow mein of our quest is definitely Philadelphian. The mild, slightly sweet sauce that coats a perfectly stir fried combination of celery, onions, bok choy and bean sprouts will be familiar to native Philadelphians raised during the 50s in Mount Airy, the Northeast and eastern Montgomery County. The service is bright and friendly and the small dining room boasts a hostess more than willing to walk a newcomer through the entire menu, which goes well beyond Taiwanese and touches land on Indonesian shores. A complete lunch here can be had for under $9.
With the migration of Chinese food addicts from city to suburbs, the neighborhood chop suey emporiums with their gold framed Yangtze-inspired wall hangings moved with them. While fusion, Indian, Thai and sushi eateries are now catering to changing tastes and elbowing out the classic Chinese, there are still enough to go around. For chow mein, I’ve settled in at Ming Garden in Limerick. The dish is the familiar Philadelphia variety, with plenty of crunch in the veggies, but again with noodles on the side. The menu holds a full variety of traditional dishes from General Tso’s to familiar meaty spare ribs. Lunch here comes in under $6.
Did I eat here with my parents 60 years ago? Wo Hop sure looks familiar. You walk downstairs to a basement restaurant in the heart of New York’s Chinatown. There’s lots of tile, and the walls are plastered with pictures of almost famous customers, from circus performers to off-Broadway actors. The menu looks like a Manhattan telephone directory. But our focal point is chow mein. The dish here is as close as you’ll get to the original. The nest of noodles that holds the vegetable concoction is fried when you order, and it is dynamite. Fill up here for under $10. Wo Hop may not be fancy, but the line of people waiting to get in at lunch and dinner is a testament to its endurance. Try to get here at off peak hours.
Congee Village on Allen Street holds bold, cavernous dining rooms decorated with Asian flair and offers a menu that streams from exotic fried fish heads to traditional Chinese-American chow mein. It’s a menu presented in Chinese with English sub-titles. But for all of its ambience, the price range competes with nearby Chinatown family eateries. My pork chow mein came in under $10, and there was enough to feed three. But, if you want to try something new, there’s a shredded squid version of the venerable dish for around $11. The Allen Street location is on the border with the Lower East Side, which is good to know if you’re hungry an hour later and need a deli nosh.
Tip: While there are many recipes for chow mein on the internet, none quite capture the long remembered flavors. Still, you can try to experiment at home — frying the noodles just right will be the biggest challenge.