Drive down Bedford Street in fall River on any given morning, and there’s the unmistakable aroma of chow mein in the air. Even with hours to go until lunch, thoughts of piling the steaming fried noodles onto a fresh bun soon follow.
The Oriental Chow Mein Co. on Eighth Street has been making its famous Hoo Mee chow mein for more than 80 years — turning out some 10,000 pounds of it each week.
“It’s only made in Fall River. This is the only one,” said company owner Barbara Wong.
Many a Fall Riverite has never tasted any other kind of chow mein — which differs depending on the company making it and the location where it’s being sold — and wouldn’t care to.
Hoo Mee chow mein is the stuff sold in Chinese restaurants from Fall River to Providence to Cape Cod and various other cities and towns in a 50-mile radius. It’s sold in supermarkets in its famous yellow box, throughout the School Department, and even on the Internet.
Wong ships the product direct all over the country, mainly to former city dwellers drooling for the familiar taste.
“This business is as steady as it can be,” said Wong, who refuses to franchise the company despite many offers. There’s no sales pitch or advertising either. “The noodle speaks for itself,” she said.
Wong, who was born in Canton, China, and resides in Fall River, has been in the chow mein business since she married her husband, Albert Wong, in 1953. His father, Frederick, started the oriental Chow Mein Co. on Third Street in 1926 as a side business to his restaurant, the former Hong Kong Restaurant on South Main Street.
“He was a very smart man,” said Wong.
The Wong family are cousins to the Wongs who owned the former and famous China Royal Restaurant, but not the Wongs who own the Cathay Pearl. “Wong is like Smith,” said Barbara Wong.
“Business is a lot better than when I got married,” she said.
They sold about 50 dozen boxes of chow mein per week then, as compared to 600 dozen boxes today.
Wong runs the Oriental Chow Mein Co. with family members and about 20 employees. Her husband died passed more than a decade ago.
Each day, Wong oversees the noodle-making process — from the mix to the cash register. In the back of the kitchen, dough is created with flour, water and salt, mixed, laid out in sheets and then cut into raw, white noodles.
“We make it from scratch,” Wong said. “It’s a flat noodle, almost like a pasta.”
Using very little oil, the noodles make their way through the fryer, sending the pleasing chow mein aroma out into the streets. In just minutes, the soft, white noodles are transformed into warm, brown and crunchy Hoo Mee chow mein. Out front, the noodles are packed into bags and boxes and are ready for sale.
“I check for quality before it goes out,” Wong said.
Though the days are long — they work Monday through Saturday — Wong said: “I enjoy it. I feel I accomplished something. The customers are wonderful.”
The Oriental Chow Mein Co. also makes chow mein gravy, egg roll wrappers and other noodle products, and turns out some 1,500 pounds of bean sprouts per day — taking the small, green beans through a water process that causes them to sprout. It also sells a variety of other items, “everything a Chinese restaurant needs,” wong said.
Customers wait in line at the Eighth Street facility to buy bags and boxes of Hoo Mee chow mein noodles and their signature powder gravy mix.
At home, Hoo Mee buyers simply stir the mix into a half-cup of water, and add it to boiling water. After a minute or so, it’s poured over the chow mein noodles and dinner is done.
Other ingredients can be added: onions, celery, chicken, shrimp, hamburger — even lobster. It’s served on and off the bun, and with and without vinegar.
“I eat it every week,” Wong said.
Simple and quick, “It gets the housewife out of the kitchen,” Wong said.
And the taste? Hoo Mee means “great taste.”