This week in Chicago, history lovers and neon sign enthusiasts alike were scrounging every last cent they had for a chance at being the next owner of a local relic: the Orange Garden Chinese Restaurant sign. Dating back to the 1930s, the 10-foot-long neon sign spells out Orange Garden, of course, but in much larger letters as the focal point of the object it says in all caps: “CHOP SUEY.”
The sign ended up selling for $17,000, Block Club Chicago reports, regrettably not to anyone on The Takeout’s editorial staff. But we can’t get the glowing outline of the words “chop suey” out of our mind. If chop suey was once such a prominent dish that its presence on a menu was more important than even the name of the restaurant serving it, why is it noticeably absent from so many Chinese menus today?
The dish chop suey falls into the category of American Chinese cuisine, featuring meat (either chicken, fish, beef, shrimp, or pork) and eggs, quickly cooked with vegetables like bean sprouts, cabbage, and celery, all mixed together in a gravy-like sauce and served over rice. If served over stir-fried noodles instead of rice, that’s a variation on chow mein. Then there is, of course, a bastardized, fully American version made with ground beef, macaroni, and tomato sauce.
Since its invention, chop suey has permeated the culture in other ways, too—Chop Suey & Co. is a short silent film from 1919, and the name has been bestowed upon a 1929 painting by Edward Hopper, a 1995 computer game, and at least five songs, including the 2001 hit by System of a Down.
Much of what we in the United States know as typical Chinese food was brought over by immigrants from the Toisan region of China, American Heritage reports. It was a population of poor farmers who assembled dishes using their crops and livestock, mostly eating mixed vegetables and fried noodles, utilizing every part of the pigs and fowl they raised. According to historian Yu Reniu, the English phrase “chop suey” is borrowed from the Toisanese tsaap slui (雜碎), two characters that together refer to entrails and giblets.
Chinese immigrants first started arriving in the United States in large numbers in the 1840s, heading to California during the gold rush only to be met with violent prejudice; many eventually settled in New York, where they still dealt with racism and xenophobia but were at least slightly more tolerated. In 1885, Chinese journalist and activist Wong Chin Foo wrote an article for a New York culinary magazine called The Cook, dispelling rumors that Chinese immigrants were cooking kittens and puppies. The article sings the praises of Chinese cuisine, and in it, he lists “chop soly” as one of his favorite dishes, one that he explained every chef had their own personal recipe for, but at the core was that same Toisan principal of mixed vegetables and meats.
That article was enough to inspire American journalist Allan Forman to visit New York City restaurant Mong Sing Wah, Atlas Obscura explains, and in his review of the place pens the first description of chop suey as it came to be known in NYC Chinese restaurants. Soon the dish spread elsewhere, and every chef put their spin on it to suit their specific clientele. Before long it would become more representative of American cuisine than Chinese culture.
In the 1900s, chop suey was the “it” dish, and soon New York City was home to hundreds of Chinese restaurants selling it, according to Education About Asia. Throughout the 1920s the dish became ubiquitous, with recipes appearing in women’s magazines and United States Army cookbooks.
In 1922, a white American University of Wisconsin graduate started the La Choy company with a Korean-American business partner to cash in on the demand for “Asian” ingredients. In 1925, Louis Armstrong released the song “Cornet Chop Suey.” Restaurants across the country started popping up to sell chop suey and advertised the dish with large, decorative signs with English lettering whose strokes mimicked those of Chinese characters (this font would even later become known as “chop suey”). It seemed like chop suey couldn’t fail. So what happened?
The shift began in part when chef Cecilia Chang opened The Mandarin in San Francisco in 1961. In 2015, Chang (who died in 2020 at 100 years old) told PBS, “I decided, well, since Chinatown the food is pretty bad, a lot of chop suey, I think I want to introduce real Chinese food to Americans.”
Once Americans realized that people in China weren’t actually eating chop suey, demand for the dish faltered—suddenly all they wanted was to taste real Chinese cuisine, even while other Americanized dishes, like General Tso’s chicken, were quietly being invented in Manhattan, Education About Asia reports. So why is General Tso’s still so prevalent on menus while chop suey has fallen by the wayside? How do consumers decide which “non-authentic” Chinese dishes are acceptable in Chinese American cuisine and which aren’t? There’s no concrete answer, but perhaps it’s because as the first to rise, chop suey also had to be the first to plummet. And the makeup of the dish is replicated in many other ways throughout other menu items; beef and broccoli is essentially a spin on chop suey, or at least embodies the Toisan sensibility that bore chop suey.
Even though the dish isn’t as common as it once was, there are still restaurants across the country that feature the dish. One of the oldest Chinese restaurants in the country is still known for its numerous chop suey dishes: Pekin Noodle Parlor in Butte, Montana. Both its location and its variations on the dish—tomato beef chop suey is one menu item—prove that chop suey is much more an American dish than a Chinese one. And it will never go away for good. Chop suey will just find new life, like as a TikTok recipe or, in the case of the Orange Garden neon sign, as a piece of history.