Egg foo young is basically an omelet filled with a protein and vegetables, fried, and served with brown gravy.

Egg foo young is usually named as a major member of the American Chinese culinary tradition, which are mostly Cantonese dishes modified for American tastes. In addition to egg foo young, American Chinese dishes include:

  • Beef broccoli – this vegetable is rarely if ever found in native Chinese cuisine
  • General Tso’s Chicken — deep frying is uncommon in traditional Chinese cuisine
  • Crab Rangoon – usually includes cream cheese, which is rare in Chinese cuisine, probably because many Asians are lactose intolerant

Many of us have eaten Tex-Mex food (fajitas, enchiladas suizas, chile con carne) for most of our lives, and perhaps mistakenly thought it was authentic Mexican. Similarly, many of us have eaten American Chinese food, and perhaps mistakenly thought it was authentic Chinese…not that it matters much.

Authenticity and taste are two different things, and just because a dish is authentic doesn’t mean it tastes better.

Still, it may be true, as David Tang wrote in The Telegraph some years ago, “We Chinese certainly don’t eat chop-suey in China and don’t call omelettes foo-yungs.” I would not, however, agree with his conclusion that “It’s time that the way in which Chinese food is dispensed in this country is changed.”  Whatever.

I greatly appreciate the authentic Hunanese cuisine served at Lao Hunan or the authentic Szechuan cuisine served at Lao Szechuan, both in Chinatown…but I also really like American Chinese food. Authenticity be damned.

At Luo’s Peking House on Marion Street, I usually order the egg foo young for lunch, and it is undeniably one of the best lunch deals in town. I usually get the shrimp egg foo young, which is always made-to-order; the egg is fluffy and the fried exterior is light and slightly crunchy, even though it’s covered in gravy. On top, I like to squirt a little sweet/sour sauce and hot mustard, which I feel creates a deliciously complex mouthful of heat, sweet, and sour flavors.

James Beard, the man who gave his name to America’s most respected food awards, wrote in 1972 that egg foo young is “A Chinese dish which has been pretty thoroughly Americanized and which inspired one of our standard sandwiches—the western or Denver. Both of these must have originated with the many Chinese chefs who cooked for logging camps and railroad gangs in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Beard mentions sandwiches made of western or Denver omelets, and in fact there is a sandwich made of egg foo young on white bread (and sometimes pickle and tomato): it’s called a St. Paul sandwich and just to keep things confusing, it was first served in St. Louis.

If you go to Luo’s for dinner, and get the dinner platter with two egg foo young patties, consider taking one home and have a St. Paul sandwich for lunch the next day. They’re good: the bread soaks up the gravy and adding pickles or tomato cuts the richness with light acidity.

The St. Paul sandwich is not authentic: they definitely do not eat this kind of thing in China, but when food tastes good, it’s hard to get too concerned about its pedigree.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...

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