Bygone Bites: A Review of La Choy’s Chow Mein

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This series is a semi-irregular feature with Glenn and Carol, two friends/co-workers raised in very different eras. For every post, Glenn picks a food from his childhood, and Carol investigates it. Hesitantly.

bygone_bites_glennGlenn Hunter, whose restaurant tastes range from Chipotle, Café Express, and Lovers Egg Roll to Salum and Al Biernat’s, has been executive editor of D CEO, D’s award-winning business magazine, since 2007. Before that the native of Santa Barbara, Calif., was editor of the Dallas Business Journal for eight years. If he could, he would eat nothing but cheese and crackers and nuts and anything else that crunches.

Growing up in Southern California in the 1950s and ’60s, I remember family dinners that were basic affairs, always prepared by our mother with one eye on cost. Liver and onions, for example. Beef stroganoff made with ground-round beef. Tuna casserole topped with crushed potato chips. Canned vegetables that mom, fearing food poisoning, proceeded to boil. After dinner, she and dad would push back their chairs and fire up their Pall Mall cigarettes, stubbing them out in an overflowing ashtray.

One meal we had occasionally was an “exotic” one: Chinese food! Specifically, Chun King Chow Mein, a canned concoction that was heated up and served with crispy Chun King noodles. I recall the Chinese dinners as quite tasty—a welcome break from our more “American” fare. So I was interested to test my memories recently by preparing today’s version of the dish: La Choy Chicken Chow Mein, available at supermarkets everywhere. (La Choy’s parent, it seems, absorbed and mainly shuttered the Chun King brand more than a decade ago.)

photo by Jeanne Prejean
photo by Jeanne Prejean

La Choy’s chow mein dinner comes in three separate cans. Following the instructions faithfully I first heated the chicken and gravy mixture from one can in the microwave for two minutes, stirring in between. Right off the bat, the gelatinous concoction began making popping sounds, like it was exploding. While that was going on, I opened the can of vegetables—carrots, water chestnuts, etc.—drained them in a colander, then mixed them in with the chicken and gravy once they were done. This combo gets heated for three minutes, or until hot. Then you sprinkle on the dry noodles, which come in a can of their own.

Digging in, I found the dish unbelievably bland. The vegetables, such as they were, were indistinguishable from each other. The chicken was fairly unrecognizable as chicken, too. The noodles were the best part by far: dark, even burned-looking, deliciously crispy. An hour or so later, alas, I “had to go to the bathroom.” Badly. And, I can’t help thinking it was mainly because of the chow mein feast. Either my constitution is much more delicate than when I was a kid—or La Choy just ain’t no Chun King.

bygone_bites_carolCarol Shih grew up eating fish eyes and stinky tofu, but she’ll never pass up a good opportunity to heat up some Bagel Bites. Straddling the line between an American and traditional Chinese upbringing, she loves nothing more than trying new foods. Especially when it means eating whatever Glenn’s having.

The whole idea for this series started in D Magazine’s common kitchen. As I was heating up my mother’s chow mein for lunch, Glenn peered over and asked me if I’d ever had Chun King noodles. It was the first time I’d heard of chow mein in a can. Honestly, I could’ve gone my whole, happy life without knowing, given the fact that my mom makes the best kind. (She puts carrots, Napa cabbage, pork, green onion, and a mix of fragrant spices in hers.) But Glenn’s lunch habits are a curious, curious thing. Some days, I see him eating an iceberg salad with a knife and fork.

If Glenn loved these noodles, I wanted to know why.

During the 1940s, a guy named Jeno Palucci came up with a line of Chinese canned food products called Chun King. La Choy was its rival. Much later on, Chun King was sold to its competition in 1995. La Choy’s products now occupy a section of the grocery store I do my best to avoid. For two months, after I bought La Choy’s Chicken Chow Mein, the blue behemoth sat in my cupboard. I didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t even want to acknowledge it.

But promises are promises, and I’d told Glenn I’d eat the foul thing. I followed the instructions, step-by-step, and found myself poking a pair of chopsticks into a weird glop of brown chicken sauce that has the same texture as plasma. So this is what people, back in the day, might’ve viewed as Chinese food. Viscous fluid-texture aside, at least it had vegetables. Dead ones. A lifeless mass of bean sprouts, celery, cubed carrots, red peppers, and baby corn) floated inside a super-salty, globby mess. Total sodium: 4560 milligrams. Nice.

Thank goodness Dallas’ Chinese food scene has grown up since the era of Chun King noodles. These days, Chun King couldn’t stand a chance against the strands at Royal China and Monkey King Noodle Company. I’m glad.