Barbary Coast Food: The Search for Chop Suey

The Chinaman. For as long as I can remember, the only Chinese restaurant in the suburban southern California town where I grew up was named for this racial slur. No one, including the Chinese owner, seemed to mind. I can’t remember if chop suey was ever on the menu, but standing at the gate to Chinatown in San Francisco, on Grant and Bush Streets still following the Barbary Coast trail, I couldn’t help but link the two. Kitschy and part of the old school food culture many of us have long abandoned.

A few nights earlier I was eating at Incanto, a stellar restaurant in the city’s Noe Valley and ended up standing in the doorway to the kitchen chatting with Chris Cosentino, the restaurant’s talented chef. That’s when he told me that chop suey was invented in San Francisco. “Some time during the Barbary Coast era,” he said.

Or was it? It would make sense that San Francisco would have birthed this kitschy dish. Chinatown boasts the first Asian temple in the United States (on Waverly Place). San Francisco was the first place Chinese immigrants flocked to, hoping to strike it rich in the rush for gold. It had to have been invented here. So, on a whim, I decided to find out.

I went into the first restaurant I encountered. The young female servers in the Utopia Café had dystopian looks on their faces when I asked if they had chop suey on the menu. “Chop suey?” a woman repeated in a tone of such befuddlement, as if I had suggested we defecate on the floor together and then invent a dish out of it and call it “Chinese food.”

Which is one story how chop suey was supposedly invented. Well, sort of, minus the excrement. In author Herbert Asbury’s “The Barbary Coast,” which I happened to have in my bag, he claims chop suey was invented in New York City, created at a banquet for Chinese and non-Chinese. The chef, he wrote, threw together some meat and vegetables and doused it liberally with soy and fish sauce and created something he thought seemed vaguely Chinese but would suit the American palate as well. Chop Suey was, apparently, born.

In New Asia restaurant no one would talk to me. Or they didn’t speak English (or were pretending not to). It didn’t help that I was holding a journalists notepad and a pen. When I asked about chop suey I only received blank stares in return.

Finally, at Yee’s on Grant St., a lead. A young waiter new exactly what I was talking about. “Yes, it may have been invented here,” he said. “I’ve heard this story. But we don’t make it anymore. No one wants this dish.”

“It’s cheap stuff,” barked an old man sitting at a cash register. “Cheap stuff.”

He was right. Chop suey reeked of a dish that consists of leftover ingredients. It’s a combination of indistinguishable products – vegetables and meat and sauces – that somehow contains hints of Chinese cuisine for the naive palate.

Everyone at Yee’s shrugged when I asked where I might find it and, more importantly, if they know where it was invented.

I was ready to give up. I put my notepad back in my pocket and started walking back toward the Chinatown gate, ready to resume my Barbary Coast trail journey.

And then I spotted it: above the door of New Woey Loy Goey on Jackson and Grant Streets, two words: chop suey. I descended the stairs and accosted the first waiter I saw. Chop suey! I said. The waiter motioned for me to sit down. But I had a question: where was it invented? Sadly, he didn’t speak English. Neither did anyone at the restaurant. Instead, he just kept showing me the words “chop suey” on the menu. The fact is, I didn’t want to eat it. I just wanted to find out its origins, to find out if it was a product of the Barbary Coast.

Later that night at home, an internet search revealed new information: one source claims it really was invented in Barbary Coast-era San Francisco; a poor chef would take scraps and throw it all together for his own meals. Another story corroborated Asbury’s New York theory. And yet another said that it really came from China.

We may never know the answer to the origins of chop suey. Especially because it, like restaurants named “The Chinaman” have long faded from the American culinary landscape. For better or worse (probably the former).