Forget Thanksgiving. The most gluttonous day of the year is Super Bowl Sunday, where bowl after bowl and paper plate after paper plate is filled with finger-food bacchanalia that would make even the mad genius responsible for the TGI Friday’s appetizer selection blush (and certainly the ancient Romans). And so, all week leading up to game day, we’ll be offering up our own menu of scientific investigations, origin stories and majestic feats of snacking that not even the biggest sporting event of the year can top. Read all of the stories here.
Few foods fill me with as much cheer as the egg roll. They’re like the more traditional Chinese spring roll, but with a thicker (and, after frying, crunchier) wrapper and more elaborate fillings. Fresh out of the fryer, they can’t be beat. I couldn’t tell you if they’re still good the next day, because mine never last that long.
The differences between egg rolls and spring rolls aren’t so much hard-and-fast rules as taxonomical guidelines, since after almost a hundred years of egg rolls, there’s a lot of overlap and variance. If the wrapper has lots of bubbles and looks deeply golden brown, it’s likely an egg roll; if the wrapper is pale and smooth, but still crisp, you’re dealing with a spring roll. Spring rolls are commonly (but not always!) packed with just vegetables, while egg rolls might contain pork, shrimp, cabbage and whatever else the cooks at your preferred carryout think is necessary.
As is often the case when immigrant chefs Americanize their cuisine, the egg roll’s origins are disputed. Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States makes the case that egg rolls were invented in the 1930s in New York City, either by Lung Fong of the restaurant Lung Fong or by Port Arthur’s Henry Low. Low’s version appears in his 1938 cookbook Cook at Home in Chinese, and looks remarkably similar to the version we still eat in 2022.
That’s not to say that Americans haven’t tampered with the egg roll since, because we have. There are avocado egg rolls and cheeseburger egg rolls and breakfast egg rolls packed with bacon, egg and cheese. Your local Tex-Mex joint might offer them Southwestern style, while an ambitious red sauce spot might serve them stuffed with tomato sauce and mozzarella. Like it or not, the fusion egg roll is here to stay. The crispy pouch has been wholly absorbed into the culinary melting pot, which now spits out regular mutated versions of it.
I recently took it upon myself to taste some of these culinary Frankensteins. I’ve never paid much attention to the “nonstandard egg roll” section of the menu and wondered if I’ve been missing something fabulous all this time. (I actually have a hard time with even “standard egg rolls” at a lot of places these days — at some point, a lot of them began containing shrimp without mentioning it on the menu, and as I am allergic to shrimp and would prefer not to succumb to “death by egg roll,” I have to hope my boyfriend orders them himself and tries them for me, yet another way our relationship is essentially that between a king and his royal poison-taster.) There was just one problem: Where could a lazy journalist ingest the maximum number of weird fake egg rolls while expending the minimum amount of effort? Could there really be a place that was all bastardizations?
I’ve written (and tweeted and podcasted) at great length about my love for The Factory, a cool name you can also use for the Cheesecake Factory if you want. I make loving jokes at its expense, but I really do think it’s the epitome of 1980s-style fusion. Back then, there were no two foods so obscure that some chef somewhere wouldn’t put them together. You can still see the legacy all over the Cheesecake Factory’s infamous tome of a menu, where pseudo-Italian dishes sit uneasily sandwiched between pseudo-Thai and pseudo-Cajun ones. Chicken is served “pizza style,” steak comes with shrimp and a troubling number of dishes claim to be “Asian” without specifying where, exactly, they originated on the world’s largest continent. For my purposes, it was perfect.
My local Factory sells an egg roll sampler, featuring the menu’s four varieties of egg roll on a single plate. These varieties are Avocado, Tex Mex, Cheeseburger and Chicken Taquito.
I picked up my food and got a-tastin’.
Filling: Avocado, sun-dried tomato, red onion and cilantro fried in a crisp wrapper. Served with a tamarind-cashew dipping sauce.
Tasting Notes: Ignore the prominent browning in the front there — I don’t think the drive home did the avocado’s color any favors, but that didn’t affect the taste.
Because I’m the unofficial poet-in-residence of the Cheesecake Factory, by which I mean I get drunk a couple times a year and email their media affairs department begging them to give me a residency, I’m often asked what my own order is at TCF. (Another cool nickname you could start spreading around!) These egg rolls feature prominently. That crisp exterior, the buttery avocado and the bite of the red onion, that sweet-but-not-saccharine dipping sauce… I can’t resist!
The only problem with these egg rolls is that they’re heavy as fuck. You can see in the group photo above that they’re bigger than the others, and while their filling is lighter and fresher, they still take up a lot of real estate in your gut.
Rating: 9/10 for positive associations, avocado-forward filling and the greatest dipping sauce in the game
Filling: Chicken, corn, green chile sauce, jack and cheddar cheese. Topped with sour cream, pico de gallo and guacamole.
Tasting Notes: Purists will rightly point out that these taquitos are wrapped in corn tortillas rather than egg-roll wrappers. The taquito’s body is therefore thicker and sweeter than that of its brothers in the sampler. This leads the philosophically inclined Cheesecake Factory diner to some tough questions about what an egg roll truly is. Already a bastardization, can it even stand up to further bastardizing efforts in the form of fusion? And if the answer to that question is yes and, thus emboldened, you bastardize this second-degree bastardization even more, what gives you the right to call it an egg roll? Where is the cabbage? Where are the water chestnuts? Where, goddamnit, is the famous wrapper?
These troubling questions are for greater minds than mine. I’ve always adored the Factory’s chicken taquitos, and the only reason I don’t get them every time is that they no longer appear on the menu as a standalone appetizer. They were the first taquitos I ever tried — D.C., where I’m from, isn’t a hotbed of taquito activity. While they seem to differ from 7-Eleven’s chiefly in their guacamole topping, my personal Proustian associations require me to claim that they’re the best taquitos available for a mass audience. The green chile sauce, the kind of crappy but still delectable jack cheese, the festively colored toppings… I’m not even offended that they’re pretending to be egg rolls these days. They were already pretending to be Mexican.
The great Eve Babitz once wrote that taquitos are much better than heroin, but she was talking about taquito stands in L.A. If she was right, then we must allow that the Cheesecake Factory’s chicken taquitos are better than methadone.
Rating: 8/10 because even though they’re lying about being egg rolls, and even though you can get almost the same thing at 7-Eleven for a tenth of the cost, they’re still goddamn delicious
Filling: Spicy chicken, corn, black beans, peppers, onions and melted cheese. Served with avocado cream and salsa.
Tasting Notes: Interestingly, despite containing mostly similar ingredients to its cousin the chicken taquito, this egg roll was much worse. I inspected their respective ingredients lists in an effort to figure out where the Tex Mex egg roll went wrong, and have some thoughts.
First off, the sheet of melted cheese coating the egg roll’s opening should have gone under a broiler or blowtorch. Melted cheese with a crisp aspect to it is delicious; melted cheese that’s goopy and plasticine is not. I also don’t love that bell-peppers-and-onions combo you see in Tex-Mex sometimes. The peppers don’t taste enough like anything to justify the space they occupy, and the recipe’s designer seems to know it, since they included two dipping sauces for this one egg roll. (One was avocado cream, one was salsa verde, and neither was up to the task of livening this thing up.)
Finally, look at the wrapper’s texture. It’s smoother and more pale than the egg roll wrapper from the avocado one, which had that telltale dark gold bubbly surface of an egg roll. Is this, perhaps… a spring roll wrapper? Now, I love a good spring roll, but its wrapper is not well-suited to the task of standing up structurally to all these wet, heavy ingredients. It’s too thin and delicate.
Rating: 5/10 for lack of flavor, lack of structural integrity, lack of texture, just plain lack
Filling: Ground beef, American cheese, ketchup, relish and onion, with ketchup-mayonnaise dipping sauce
Tasting Notes: This is the egg roll I was least looking forward to, because, well, just look at it. Ground beef is many things, but visually appealing has never been one. This was the only egg roll that didn’t include even a hint of green freshness, and why should it? A cheeseburger is ideologically opposed to green freshness.
Once again, the wrapper appears to be more spring roll than egg roll, and once again, this is a downside. I know this sort of food isn’t designed to be driven for 20 minutes and eaten at home, but then again, the egg rolls from Chinese takeout spots routinely survive their travel time. The ingredients stuffed into this delicate wrapper are so wet that the wrapper was totally gummy by the time I got my hands on it. The avocado egg rolls and taquitos, with their sturdy exteriors, stood up to the travel time much better.
The inside tasted like an okay, if underseasoned, cheeseburger. The beef was somehow simultaneously greasy and dry, but the American cheese added a nice salty savor. The dipping sauce helped with the taste, but I didn’t like how much of it I needed to use per bite to keep this thing from being inedible. All in all, it left me queasy.
Rating: 3/10 for not being literal poison
Some Final Thoughts
As a lifelong Cheesecake Factory stan, I must admit that this experiment pained me a little. Casual chain restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory are all about their appetizers (deep fried, calorie-dense and infinitely upsellable), and the app sampler is the apex of appetizer culture. The best part of your meal at such a place is always the appetizer, because you’re still so hungry that you want that much deep fried food at once. And the app sampler allows you to feel cultured as you try a fine selection of several deep fried foods, rather than devoting yourself to just one.
Don’t get me wrong — this egg roll sampler was 50 percent tasty! But it was 50 percent disappointing and gross, so I have to regard non-Chinese egg rolls with suspicion moving forward. Maybe the lesson here is that whoever did invent the original egg roll got it right. Further experimentation has generated a lot of icky mutants. I normally enjoy the Cheesecake Factory’s slapdash, offensive approach to fusion, but in this case, its methods were unsound.
Maybe not everything needs to be an egg roll.