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A few minutes of dunking and flipping, then Dung fishes the patty from the oil with a slotted spatula. Using a second spatula and his own leverage, the cook presses out the excess grease before placing the finished egg foo young on a slice of white bread along with lettuce, tomato and a few pickle slices.
The St. Paul, invariably packaged in wax paper, offers the flavor combo you'd expect whenever lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise and a cholesterol-rich animal product share bread space. But the sandwich's true genius lies in those slices of pickle. Not only does their acidity cut through the fattiness, it also imbues the sandwich with a sharp counterpoint, a gustatory point of reference.
Park Chop Suey proprietor Billy Luu claims that his restaurant's former owner, Steven Yuen, created the St. Paul Sandwich and named it for his hometown, St. Paul, Minnesota. But Yuen is in bad health and could not be reached for comment, so the precise origins of the St. Paul sandwich might forever remain murky.
A diminutive man with a sparse moustache and an even sweep of ink-black hair, Luu first came to work at Park Chop Suey in 1980. He'd only recently arrived in St. Louis as a Vietnamese refugee (via Malaysia and Indonesia) and had little more than the clothes on his back and the cash in his pocket. Yuen, who'd opened the place in the mid-1970s, took him in. Six years ago Luu bought out Yuen and today he runs the shop with his wife, Maria, and three employees.
"[Yuen's] children weren't interested in it, because it's really hard work," Luu says. "It'll take at least twelve hours a day, so you don't have much time for your family."
Luu's watching the lunch rush from the rear of the kitchen. His cooks, all of whom are Vietnamese, dress identically: jeans, sweatshirts, running shoes, baseball caps. They've assembled a simple shrine to a grease-stained Buddha that sits on a shelf: a vase of plastic roses and a red plastic party cup filled with incense. But the room's most impressive feature is a massive, fire-breathing stove outfitted with four wok cradles, each of which is sealed all around with an iron surface and equipped with a spigot mounted on the wall behind the cooking surface. When a dish is finished, the cook swings the spigot over the wok and scrubs it down with a piece of steel wool without taking the pan off the flame.
Other than the stove, almost everything in Park Chop Suey's kitchen is recycled. Boxes are reused as garbage pails, wide-mouthed cans of water chestnuts are reborn as containers for sesame oil and kung pao sauce. Behind us a five-gallon Kikkoman soy sauce bucket brims with duck wings. To our left a gray plastic tub is filled with finely diced cabbage, pork and carrots destined for countless egg rolls ($1.10 for an order). To the right is an ancient reach-in cooler that holds cellophane-wrapped bowls of pre-fried pork, celery and carrots, plus three bottles of Budweiser. Nearly every inch of free shelf space in the kitchen is occupied by tubs of cooked rice.
"I think the food is as good as any fast food we have in St. Louis," says Luu, adding, "Before I came here, there were people that took longer. The business is better now, faster."
Though Park Chop Suey looks exactly like every other chop suey joint in St. Louis, the restaurant does have one distinguishing feature: The ordering area isn't separated from the kitchen by a sheet of bulletproof glass.
An Italian immigrant living in San Diego, Cardini opened his restaurant across the border to avoid Prohibition laws. He isn't about to let a food shortage interfere with a bang-up dinner service, so, taking a few raw egg yolks, a dash of lemon juice, grated Parmesan cheese, olive oil and a head of romaine lettuce, Cardini makes culinary history by combining the ingredients tableside to create the world's first Caesar salad.
Or so the story goes. Similarly, the venerable chimichanga is said to have been invented in 1922, when Monica Flin accidentally dropped a burrito into the deep fryer. Chef Charles Ranhofer is credited as the father of eggs Benedict, named in honor of a regular customer, Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, who couldn't find anything on the menu that pleased her one night in the 1860s. Popcorn purportedly sprung into existence one scorching afternoon when kernels began popping right on the stalk. The American table is filled with creation myths, and chop suey is no exception.
The first origin story goes like this: During an 1896 visit to New York City, Chinese diplomat Li Hung Chang asked his chef to use local ingredients to make a Chinese dish for his American dinner guests. Li's visit was widely reported in the media of the day, and historians speculate that savvy Chinese restaurant owners may have exploited reports of the dinner by marketing it as "chop suey," Li's favorite dish.
Still, it is unlikely that Li's chef inventedchop suey. The Oxford English Dictionary's first chop suey citation is dated eight years earlier, to 1888: "A staple dish for the Chinese gourmand is chow chop svey [sic], a mixture of chickens' livers and gizzards, fungi, bamboo buds, pigs' tripe, and bean sprouts stewed with spices."