St. Louie Chop Suey

You are what you eat: The story of a culture, told through its cuisine.

Though chop suey can still be found in the heartland, it's virtually nonexistent on the coasts. Not coincidentally, the chop suey house tends to survive chiefly in Rust Belt ghettos that were untouched by the urban renewal of the 1960s and left behind by the new cosmopolitan economy.

Which is to say, you can get your fill of chop suey in north St. Louis.

"The city would not allow these places to exist in white neighborhoods," spits Alderman Charles Quincy Troupe. "Our people have to eat this bullshit."

Jacques Derrida: Deconstruct this!
Jacques Derrida: Deconstruct this!
The venerable St. Paul Sandwich, as prepared by David Owens.
Jennifer Silverberg
The venerable St. Paul Sandwich, as prepared by David Owens.
Terrene chef David Owens offers a 21st-century take on the  
St. Paul Sandwich.
Jennifer Silverberg
Terrene chef David Owens offers a 21st-century take on the St. Paul Sandwich.

Before he shuttered his shop, Huai Cheng offered an equally blunt assessment: "This food is just for the black people."


Chop suey may have been done in by President Nixon's trip to China, the transition to a more cosmopolitan economy and the liberalization of U.S. immigration policies. But the cuisine also had a philosophical enemy: the Frenchman Jacques Derrida, whose Of Grammatology, published in 1967, ushered in the postmodern age.

Unlike Socrates' platonic ideal or Kant's subjectivity, Derrida espoused the cheerful notion that everything we'd ever believed was wrong. Though ostensibly theorizing about the difference between speech and writing (for Derrida there was none), over the next 30 years his philosophy came to bear on virtually every aspect of modern life. It turned out those distinctions to which we'd assiduously clung — differences between nations, cultures, ideas, cuisines — were entirely arbitrary. Even notions we'd thought of as black and white — the difference, say, between good and evil — had been so influenced by one another that they were, if not indistinguishable, cut from the same metaphysical fabric.

It took a while for Derrida to trickle down to the realm of culinary thought, but trickle it did. Unlike the 1980s craze for "authentic" Chinese food, the rise of so-called fusion cuisine in the 1990s introduced diners to a topsy-turvy buffet of fajita spring rolls and canard à l'orange won tons. Chop suey — perceived as a concoction without a culture — was banished from the communal table.

Fusion cuisine created some memorable dishes, but diners eventually tired of a world without reference points. As revelations surfaced about the perils of industrial agriculture, people demanded to know what they were eating, and where it came from. And so the fusion fad gave way to our current obsession with organic and locally grown ingredients.

Which brings us to David Owens, executive chef and co-owner of the sleek Central West End hot spot Terrene. Though it's a mere two miles from the now-shuttered Hing Lung Chop Suey, Terrene might as well be on another continent, maybe even in another time. White-aproned waiters glide through its industrial-chic dining room with walls of exposed brick and tabletops made from Shetka Stone, which the menu informs diners is a "revolutionary product" made entirely of recycled paper. That same menu assures us Terrene uses organic ingredients and seafood harvested from sustainable sources and even goes so far as to list the farms that provide many of the restaurant's ingredients.

That very same lunch menu offers another local item: the St. Paul Sandwich. (Click here to watch Owens prepare one.)

"I always thought it was a really interesting dish," explains Owens, whose love affair with the St. Paul Sandwich was kindled just across the river in his hometown of Granite City, Illinois.

Owens starts his St. Paul by sautéing edamame sprouts and carrots in a small skillet. Finished in the kitchen's Salamander, the patty that emerges is more like an omelet than a puck. Owens' take on the St. Louis classic also features whole-wheat bread, red cabbage slaw and housemade bread-and-butter pickles.

The chef is careful not to overplay the sandwich, allowing it to quietly occupy a niche midway between comfort-food love and ironic kitsch. "In essence it's egg foo young on bread, but it's overall a better dish [than what you get at a chop suey house]," Owens says. "Do we sell enough to warrant it being on the menu? Maybe yes, maybe no, but I'm committed to the item. Even if we sold none, I'd keep it on the menu."

Plating one of his own just-off-the-grill St. Pauls, Owens isn't too concerned with the epistemology of the St. Paul. He believes his take on the dish could appeal to a wider market. "It's sort of a jazzed-up egg sandwich," he says. "I think if you took it anywhere and did it like we do it, you could sell it."

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