Why St. Louis loves the St. Paul sandwich
From Provel to T-ravs, the St. Louis culinary fixation I’ve had the hardest time wrapping my head around is the St. Paul sandwich. Unverified local legend has it that a Chinese-American chef in the city invented the St. Paul in the 1940s to please Midwestern palates. He put an egg foo young patty (egg, bean sprouts, onion, flour) between a couple of pieces of white bread slathered with mayo, topped it with lettuce, tomato and pickles and named it after his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota.
I thought the white bread would immediately become soggy and distressed from the mayo and the grease from the egg foo young. The lettuce, tomato and pickle surely played the most cursory of supporting roles. But I kept hearing folks rhapsodizing about this seemingly impossible sandwich.
The Midwestern executive chef Ben Welch has been eating them since he was a kid. “I’m a sandwich guy. I’m all about the handheld, so [St. Pauls] fit me,” he said. “On paper, it makes no sense. Who wants eggs and mayo and lettuce and tomato together on white bread? But it works.”
“We sell a lot of them,” said Qui Tran, co-owner of Mai Lee. “It’s like a cult thing.”
Tran was introduced to the St. Paul in the 1980s at his family’s restaurant, China Wall, in Jennings, and for him the sandwich is a comforting reminder of days past.
“I mean, a fried egg patty on white bread?” he said. “Let’s do it!”
“It’s one of many hangover cures for me,” said restaurateur Kristin Liu, whose family owned Chinese Gourmet Restaurant in Florissant from 1984 until it closed in 2017. She prefers a ham St. Paul or a “special” with all of the available proteins piled on. “It’s greasy and simple. I’m really nostalgic about it. It’s basically an omelet sandwich.”
Talking to these chefs finally got me off my culinary high horse to try my first St. Paul – and then another, and a few more after that. And now I get it. The piping hot egg combined with the sweet, fluffy white bread is a fast-track back to childhood. It needs to be eaten while the egg foo young is hot off the grill before the bread gets gummy. In other words, you have to wolf your food down – exactly what your mother told you not to do.
Over the years, the sandwich has evolved somewhat, and most places offer variations topped with everything from pork belly to shrimp. This is where the sandwich really comes into its own – as a perfect blank canvas for experimentation. My favorite St. Paul so far is the Special at Chinese Express in Richmond Heights. It’s topped with an amalgam of chicken, roast pork and shrimp.
Welch said the St. Paul is particularly popular in African American communities. He said the chop suey restaurant standard is a part of St. Louis Black culture – possibly because many Chinese immigrants have opened restaurants in predominantly Black, low-income neighborhoods, and the St. Paul provides a substantial meal for not a lot of money. “The worse neighborhood it is, the better the sandwich,” he said.
His favorite version is the pork St. Paul from Lisa’s Chop Suey in Jennings. “I just grew up going to that one – that’s where the family went, it’s nostalgic. It’s delicious. It’s not healthy – it’s just a good fucking sandwich.”
4 St. Paul Sandwiches to Try Now
1. Mai Lee
Skip all the way to the back of Mai Lee’s expansive menu to find the selection of St. Pauls. I have a soft spot for the original version, which was the first St. Paul I ever tried, but there are other variations available including flank steak and barbecue pork.
8396 Musick Memorial Drive, Richmond Heights, 314.645.2835, maileestl.com
2. Bo Fung Chinese Kitchen
When I asked my social media mavens about the best St. Paul, Bo Fung was mentioned more than any other place. At this South City hole in the wall, an original St. Paul will only set you back $3.
6810 Gravois Ave., St. Louis, 314.353.8216, Facebook: Bo Fung Chinese Kitchen
3. Chinese Express
Located near the intersection of Clayton Road, Skinker Boulevard and McCausland Avenue, this odd little building is home to my favorite St. Paul so far: The Special features a mix of chicken, roast pork and shrimp.
7022 Clayton Ave., Richmond Heights, 314.781.8898/314.781.0041, chineseexpressmo.com
4. Lisa’s Chop Suey
North St. Louis is a home to countless chop suey restaurants. Ben Welch grew up going to this Jennings St. Paul spot known for its giant, insanely affordable sandwiches. Even the Special St. Paul is less than $3.
8970 Jennings Station Road, Jennings, 314.868.8041, Facebook: Lisa’s Chop Suey
Matt Sorrell is a longtime contributor to Sauce Magazine.