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Unknown to many Minnesotans, there's a sandwich named after our state's capital city. But you can't get a St. Paul sandwich in St. Paul. You have to go to St. Louis.

The St. Paul sandwich is a St. Louis specialty, sold in Chinese American restaurants there. It's basically an egg foo young patty placed between two slices of white bread with mayo, lettuce, pickles and tomato.

But it's not just one of those regional food oddities like lutefisk or scrapple or a Fluffernutter: Known across much of the country, it's been acclaimed, researched, updated and adapted.

The Food Network put the St. Paul sandwich on a list of "Best Sandwiches in America." Playboy magazine rated a St. Louis-area St. Paul sandwich as one of the top 10 sandwiches in the United States. And when "America's Test Kitchen" made a video about the St. Paul sandwich, host Bryan Roof described it as "one of the great hidden sandwiches of America," and "one of the best sandwiches I've ever eaten."

What gives?

There are competing narratives about its origins. One story holds that the sandwich was invented in the 1940s by Steven Yuen, founder of Park Chop Suey in St. Louis. Yuen is said to have named the dish after his hometown of St. Paul, Minn., according to an email from Emily Adams, editor-in-chief of the St. Louis-based Feast Magazine.

A competing theory comes from the late chef and cookbook author James Beard, who suggested that the St. Paul sandwich could be a take on the Western or Denver sandwich, which is basically a Denver omelet (eggs fried with onions, green peppers and ham) between bread. Those sandwiches had roots in the omelets created by Chinese chefs who cooked for logging camps and railroad gangs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Beard. And food writer Evan Jones said that a frontier Chinese cook could have put an egg foo young patty between sliced bread to feed hungry cowboys in the saddle.

Evidence of the existence of the St. Paul sandwich comes from a Chicago-area sandwich scholar named Jim Behymer. His 10-year-old website, the Sandwich Tribunal, represents his efforts to discover and sample every sandwich in existence around the world. So far, he's gotten through about 300 — from the Icelandic pepperoni taco to the Milwaukee cannibal sandwich.

In 2019, he did a deep dive into the St. Paul sandwich, uncovering an image from a 1903 newspaper, the Appeal, that served the African American community in St. Paul. The paper ran an ad for the Mills' Sandwich Rooms on Robert Street offering "the new and popular 'St. Paul sandwich.'" Another ad in the same paper two years later showed a menu for the restaurant, with the St. Paul sandwich listed right after the Denver sandwich. Each cost a dime.

Could the St. Paul sandwich have been invented here and then migrated down the Mississippi River to St. Louis? Maybe over the decades, St. Paul forgot about the St. Paul sandwich, while St. Louis embraced it.

Not so, says St. Louis blues music writer Kevin Belford. He argues that the St. Paul sandwich is a St. Louis invention. He found that the St. Paul sandwich had been served in St. Louis for more than 100 years — an example of fusion cuisine long before the term was coined.

"It seems very likely that the various Asian, African and European immigrants in the densely populated city was the unique combination of factors that contributed to the creation of the Americanized Egg Foo Yung sandwich with the Catholic name — the Saint Louis Saint Paul," Belford wrote in his Devil at the Confluence blog.

Wherever it came from, it's clear that St. Louis continues to love the sandwich. Restaurants in the area offer a vegan version and one featuring jerk chicken. But the original Asian omelet sandwich, traditionally served wrapped in waxed paper, is still popular cheap eats. The version Playboy touted in 2009, from Wong's Inn of Maplewood, Mo., cost only $2.40. At Fortune Express in St. Louis, you can get a beef, chicken or ham version today for under $5.

You just can't get one here.

Calls to a handful of Chinese restaurants in St. Paul got the same puzzled response. "I've never heard of sandwich egg foo young," said an employee at Leo's Chow Mein. "We have egg foo young, but no sandwich," was the response from New Asia.

Let's make a St. Paul sandwich

Since my boss wasn't going to send me 500 miles south to get a St. Louis-made St. Paul, I decided to make my own.

Of course, I could have just bought an egg foo young patty from a local restaurant and put it between a couple slices of bread. But I started from scratch, adapting recipes from Feast Magazine and America's Test Kitchen.

My version included beef, chicken, ham and, for that Jucy Lucy touch, some cubed cheddar cheese mixed up with eggs and chopped vegetables, including onions and green peppers. I cut back on the bean sprouts and mixed in some sauerkraut and chopped pickles to punch up the flavor. I also seasoned with garlic powder.

The omelet I made had a perfectly deep brown crust, but I had a little trouble getting it to stick together. So I spooned the cooked egg foo young mixture between slices of bread smeared with mayo. (Some recipes specify Wonder Bread, but I used Bimbo brand soft white instead.) Then topped it with an iceberg lettuce leaf, two thin slices of tomato and four pickle slices.

A well-browned Chinese-American-style egg foo young patty is the filling for a St. Paul sandwich.
A well-browned Chinese-American-style egg foo young patty is the filling for a St. Paul sandwich.

Richard Chin, Star Tribune

I'm not a big fan of egg foo young, so I wasn't expecting too much. But on a sandwich? It was surprisingly delicious. I got contrasting tastes and textures in each bite: squishy white bread, cool, crispy vegetables, tangy pickles, fatty melted cheese and mayonnaise and the warm, savory, meaty, eggy filling.

The Sandwich Tribunal's Behymer describes the St. Paul sandwich as a "Frankensteinian experiment" but admits "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

It's tasty. It's deep fried. It's familiar yet different. You can probably eat it while walking. That made me wonder: Could the St. Paul sandwich be next new Minnesota State Fair food?