Sloppy Chinese Burgers (California, 1990s, adapted)

Sloppy Chinese Burgers is a tasty weeknight sandwich that comes to me by way of Bless This Food, a community cookbook compiled by the Little White Chapel Christian Church in Burbank, California.  The recipe was submitted by one Carol L., who contributed dozens of other normally named recipes such as Dori’s Rigatoni and Noodle Chicken.   Why she chose to give this recipe a name suitable for a dirty joke is anyone’s guess.  Fortunately, it tastes better than it sounds.

The recipe itself is a riff on Sloppy Joes with an Americanized Chinese flavor profile.  (Chinese Sloppy Joes – how hard is that?)  Instead of the usual tomato sauce and chili powder, Sloppy Chinese Burgers opt for a sweet and gingery stir fry sauce with an assortment of nominally Chinese vegetables.   The end results bears a strong resemblance to any number of mid-1970s chow mein recipes, and might just as well be served over noodles as hamburger buns.

And yet serving it over noodles deprives us of the weird flavor pairing that made this an instant hit in my house:  tomato ketchup.  Now ketchup certainly has a place in American Chinese cuisine.  The Chinese restaurants of my youth doled out free fried wontons with ketchup and hot mustard for dipping, the Chinese-American equivalent of chips and salsa, and any sweet and sour sauce worth its msg gets its bright red from a bottle of Heinz.   And it works oddly well for this dish as well.  The burger mixture by itself is very salty and just a tiny bit sweet:  the ketchup aligns the sweet and salty and balances it with a proper amount of acid.

But let’s not pretend this is fancy or traditional.  It’s a late 1970s ground meat dinner turned onto a hamburger bun and slathered with ketchup.  Serve it with Funyuns, a sesame-dressed side salad, and maybe some fresh pineapple.  And prepare to enjoy it way more than it deserves to be enjoyed.


Sloppy Chinese Burgers (California, 1990s, adapted)


For the sauce:

For serving:


  1. Melt butter in a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Cook onion until wilted but avoid browning. Stir in garlic and cook 1 minute more.
  2. Crumble meat into the skillet along with the diced celery. Combine well with the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until hamburger is well browned. Remove as much fat as you can.
  3. Drain the mushrooms, reserving the liquid, and stir in the bean sprouts. Reduce heat to medium.
  4. Combine the ingredients for the sauce with the reserved mushroom liquid, stirring well with a fork to form a cornstarch slurry. Stir into the meat mixture, stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens.
  5. Ladle on top of hamburger buns. Top with green onions, cabbage, and ketchup.
  6. I'm not kidding about the ketchup. It makes all the difference.

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