In the 60s, in nearby Elmhurst, if you were going to have “Chinese food,” what you’d probably be having was chop suey from Elmhurst Chop Suey (now closed).
Chop suey was once synonymous with Chinese food. This was before many of us gringos knew that there were different Chinese regions, each with their own unique cuisines. Chop suey may have come from the Cantonese tradition, in that it leverages fresh ingredients, modestly seasoned, in a light sauce. There is, however, a lingering controversy about where chop suey originated, just as there is about many other foods, including the Cuban sandwich served at Potbelly in Downtown Oak Park.
Some say chop suey was invented in the U.S., and there’s no doubt that chop suey is the dish most likely to be found on any Chinese-American menu, along with other Americanized dishes like General Tso’s Chicken and Crab Rangoon. Some speculate that chop suey was developed by Chinese workers in San Francisco or elsewhere, but there is strong evidence that chop suey may have originated in (you’ll never guess) China! Andrew Coe, in his excellent book Chop Suey, makes the case that this preparation may very well have arisen from a Cantonese peasant dish called something that sounds like “chop suey” and that contained a lot of chopped vegetables.
Chop suey was some of the first Chinese food that found a mainstream market in the United States, and since then Chinese food has become the most popular ethnic cuisine in the U.S.
Wherever it was invented, and however popular it may have been, chop suey is unlikely to be a menu item that many of us order any more. It feels old and passé, like duck a l’orange or trout amandine. Nonetheless, in honor of National Chop Suey Day (August 29), I decided to have a dish I hadn’t ordered in probably the past half-century – and I decided to have it at a place I’d never been to before, the aptly named King Chop Suey, located at the end of an unprepossessing strip mall on Lake Street.
King Chop Suey is all take-out, and I got beef chop suey, an eggroll and shrimp fried rice for $6.95, a very reasonable price for what seemed like (no exaggeration) two pounds of food. Back home, opening the white Styrofoam container, I found that most of the food had the same faded grey-green-brown colors of the washed-out food photographs that hang above the King Chop Suey take-out counter. Still, the flavors of the chopped carrots, onions, and bean sprouts, seemed fresh, and there was no taste of slightly-past-its-prime oil, which one does sometimes encounter at many less expensive Chinese places. There was a lot of beef included, almost 1:1 with the vegetables, which kind of surprises me as this is value-dining. It’s not expensive but it was very satisfying.
At King Chop Suey, they serve the chop suey of my youth: decent and fresh ingredients, spiced very non-aggressively to appeal to the many tastes, with rice and an eggroll, all of it tasting like 1964.