The Delicious History of America's Oldest Chinese-American Restaurant

Behind every Chinese-American restaurant is a tale of assimilation, innovation, and survival—but the Pekin Noodle Parlor in Butte, Montana has a particularly storied past. Founded by immigrants in 1911, it claims to be the oldest continuously operating eatery of its kind in the United States. Now, the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in Brooklyn is featuring the eatery in its new exhibit, "Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant," which looks at how Chinese food in the U.S. evolved into the ubiquitous cuisine we know and love today.

The Pekin Noodle Parlor is tucked inside a brick building on Uptown Butte’s historic Main Street. Suspended over the restaurant’s storefront is a neon sign that reads “CHOP SUEY,” and inside, a steep set of stairs leads visitors to a narrow, second-floor room lined with cozy curtained dining booths divided by orange beadboard partitions.

Jerry Tam

Jerry Tam

On the restaurant’s ground floor—which in previous incarnations served as a gambling hall and an herbal medicine dispensary—you’ll find relics from the building’s past: old bottles of soy sauce, vintage Chinese gambling equipment, kitchen equipment, and tin containers and drawers filled with herbs and teas. As for food, patrons can order chop suey and Szechuan, Cantonese, and Burmese-style dishes off a menu that’s remained largely unchanged for more than a century.

The Pekin Noodle Parlor is a family affair. Danny Wong, an 82-year-old immigrant, has owned and operated the restaurant since the early 1950s, and his son, Jerry Tam, assists him in its day-to-day operations. Wong—whose Chinese name is Ding Tam—purchased the business from its founder, his great-uncle Hum Yow.

If it seems strange that the nation’s oldest functioning Chinese restaurant is in Montana, chalk it up to 19th century immigration patterns. Between 1850 and 1900, around 250,000 Chinese people came to the United States. Many of them were fleeing political strife, poverty, and famine; others were lured by the 1849 Gold Rush. Montana Territory was a mining mecca, and thousands of Chinese immigrants flocked there looking for work. By 1870, nearly 10 percent of Montana’s population was Chinese-American.

Eventually, gold reserves dwindled and animosity from white miners grew, so Chinese immigrants then found new jobs building America’s first transcontinental railroad. Once the railroad was completed in 1869, they gained new livelihoods as entrepreneurs, founding small businesses like laundries, groceries, farms, and—yes—Chinese-American restaurants.

According to historians at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, Wong can trace his family’s history in America back to the 1860s. A distant relative, whose name has been lost, delivered supplies to Chinese camps and communities across the American West. By the late 1890s, that family member’s son had arrived in Butte, an area home to Montana's largest Chinese community at the time, where he helped run a laundry business.

More Tams arrived in Butte, and two men from the family—Wong’s great-uncle, Hum Yow, and his grandfather Tam Kwong Yee—went into business together. They opened a Chinese mercantile on the east edge of the city's Chinatown. By 1911, its top floor had been transformed into the Pekin Noodle Parlor, and the first floor was home to a gambling club, and later, an herbal shop. These businesses eventually closed, but the Pekin Noodle Parlor remained.

In 1947, Tam Kwong Yee’s grandson, Danny Wong, emigrated from China to America and found a job at the Pekin Noodle Parlor. When Hum Yow retired from the restaurant business, Wong purchased it and ran the establishment for more than six decades with his wife, Sharon Chu. Chu passed away in late 2014, and today, Jerry Wong helps his father run the business.

Pekin Noodle Parlor isn’t the first documented Chinese-American restaurant in the United States. (That honor goes to Canton Restaurant, which opened in San Francisco in 1849.) However, it’s the oldest one still running today—and aside from a fresh coat of paint here or a minor remodel there, it contains all of its original furnishing, including the chairs, tables, and dishes.

Jerry Tam thinks the secret to the restaurant’s longevity is its classic Chinese-American menu, which includes dishes like chow mein, chop suey, and egg foo young. “People enjoy the food,” Wong told mental_floss. “It’s comfort food; it’s very familiar.” (For a long time, the Pekin Noodle Parlor also served American diner food.)

Emma Boast, MOFAD's program director and curator of the "Chow" exhibit, has another theory for why the Pekin Noodle Parlor’s menu is so popular with patrons.

“In bigger cities on the East coast and the West coast, this kind of food really fell out of fashion after World War II,” Boast told mental_floss. “Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s—and certainly today—in places like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, [there are] new Chinese-Americans coming over and bringing their food from various regions within China with them, and starting their own businesses for their own communities. That’s not necessarily happening in Montana, so I think there’s maybe more of a market there for that kind of classic Chinese-American food.”

Wong’s local celebrity also plays a part. “He’s very well known, because the restaurant has been there for so long,” Boast says.

Plus, colorful rumors about the Pekin Noodle Parlor’s past add to the restaurant’s intrigue. The establishment is close to Butte’s old red light district, and it’s surrounded by miles of underground tunnels. Legend has it that these passages were once used to illegally transport drugs, while others say that the Pekin Noodle Parlor also operated as a brothel. However, Montana historians say there’s no truth to these tales. According to them, the tunnels were built to provide buildings with steam heat, and they occasionally served as a delivery conduit.

Today, few Chinese-Americans still live in Butte—or for that matter, Montana. During the early 20th century, immigrants left the state due to discriminatory laws, boycotts against Chinese-American businesses, and racism. They moved to Chinatowns in larger cities, or to other cities that offered safety and economic opportunity. Chinese-Americans in Butte fought back against prejudiced practices and policies, but their population also dwindled in number. Today, fewer than one percent of the city's residents are Asian.

Miraculously, the Pekin Noodle Parlor survived, and in 2011, the business celebrated its 100th birthday (Jerry Tam cooked dinner for the whole town). To commemorate the occasion, the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives organized an exhibit, "One Family—One Hundred Years," dedicated to the Tam family’s history and Butte's Chinese-American legacy. On display was an assortment of antique relics—including a cash register, a chopping block, gambling equipment, shipping containers, and more—salvaged from the Pekin Noodle Parlor’s basement and ground-level storefront.

As for MOFAD's exhibit, it showcases a replica of the Pekin Noodle Parlor's famous neon sign, along with an original china place setting, a Cantonese-style wok, and an assortment of shipping materials once used to transport ingredients. Visitors can also view 150 years' worth of Chinese-American restaurant menus, a working fortune cookie machine, and relics from restaurants across the U.S.

When asked about the Pekin Noodle Parlor's future, Tam says he will continue to help his father run the restaurant "until he decides to do otherwise.” As for now, he’s trying to certify the restaurant’s claim to fame as America’s oldest Chinese-American restaurant, in hopes of receiving a Guinness World Record. “If you look at the underpinnings of our restaurant, it’s a fascinating story,” Tam says. “It’s a fascinating business.”

20 Attempts to Describe the Taste of Durian, the World’s Smelliest Fruit

iStock.com/Worradirek
iStock.com/Worradirek

The durian is a beloved delicacy in Malaysia, Singapore, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Its taste and smell, however, take some getting used to. The creamy fruit is notoriously potent—in fact, it’s so smelly that Singapore’s public transit systems tell passengers not to bring them onto subways or buses. And yet, despite its stinky reputation, it can be found practically everywhere: In curries, cakes, and even ice cream. For visitors, biting into the fruit can be an utterly confusing and contradictory experience. Here are some outsider opinions from the past 400 years.

1. “The flesh is as white as snow, exceeds in delicacy of taste of all our best European fruits, and none of ours can approach it.” —Jacques de Bourges, 17th Century Missionary

2. “Comparisons have been made with the civet cat, sewage, stale vomit, onions, and cheese; while one disaffected visitor to Indonesia declared that the eating of the flesh was not much different from having to consume used surgical swabs.” —The Oxford Companion to Food

3. “Tastes lightly sweet and deeply musky.” —Frommer’s Guide to Malaysia

4. “[I]ts odor is best described as pig-sh*t, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away.” —Richard Sterling, food writer

5. "To eat it seems to be the sacrifice of self-respect.” —Bayard Taylor, 19th-century Journalist

6. “To anyone who doesn’t like durian it smells like a bunch of dead cats. But as you get to appreciate durian, the smell is not offensive at all. It’s attractive. It makes you drool like a mastiff.” —Bob Halliday, Bangkok-based food writer

7. “Vomit-flavoured custard.” —The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei

8. “The smell of rotten eggs is so overwhelming. I suppress a gag reaction as I take a bite.” —Robb Walsh, food writer

9. “Like all the good things in Nature … durian is indescribable. It is meat and drink and an unrivalled delicacy besides, and you may gorge to repletion and never have cause for penitence. It is the one case where Nature has tried her hand at the culinary art and beaten all the CORDON BLEUE out of heaven and earth.” —a "good friend" of Edmund J. Banfield, Australian Naturalist, as quoted in Banfield's 1911 book My Tropic Isle

10. “[Has a] sewer-gas overtone.” —Maxine E. McBrinn, Anthropologist

11. “Like pungent, runny French cheese … Your breath will smell as if you’d been French kissing your dead grandmother.” —Anthony Bourdain, Chef and Host of Parts Unknown

12. “On first tasting it, I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction, but after four or five trials I found the aroma exquisite.” —Henri Mouhot, French Naturalist, in Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China: Siam, Cambodia, and Laos, During the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860

13. “[Like] eating ice cream in an outhouse.” —As reported in Jerry Hopkins's Strange Foods

14. “I must say that I have never tasted anything more delicious. But not everyone can enjoy or appreciate this strange fruit for the disgusting smell that distinguishes it and that is apt to cause nausea to a weak stomach. Imagine to have under your nose a heap of rotten onion and you will still have but a faint idea of the insupportable odour which emanates from these trees and when its fruit is opened the offensive smell becomes even stronger.” —Giovanni Battista Cerruti, Italian Explorer, in 1908's My Friends the Savages

15. “It tastes like completely rotten mushy onions.” —Andrew Zimmern, Host of Bizarre Foods

16. “Like eating raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.” —Anthony Burgess, Novelist

17. “A rich custard highly flavored with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavor that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes." —Alfred Russel Wallace, 19th-century British Naturalist

18. “You will either be overcome, seduced by its powerful, declarative presence, or reject it outright. And run screaming." —Monica Tan, The Guardian Journalist

19. “Carrion in custard.” —A “Governor of the Straits” quoted in 1903's Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive

20. “Yes, I freely admit that when ripe it can smell like a dead animal. Yes, the fruit is difficult to handle, bearing likeness to a medieval weapon. But get down to the pale yellow, creamy flesh, and you’ll experience overtones of hazelnut, apricot, caramelized banana and egg custard. That’s my attempt at describing durian. But words fail; there is no other fruit like it.” —Thomas Fuller, New York Times Journalist

What Is Nougat?

iStock.com/InaTs
iStock.com/InaTs

If you've ever had a Snickers, Three Musketeers, or Milky Way bar, you know what nougat tastes like. The sweet, creamy concoction can range in texture from chewy to fluffy, and it is the star ingredient in many popular candy bars. But aside from being delicious, what is nougat exactly?

In its simplest form, nougat is made of two basic ingredients: egg whites and a sweetener, traditionally sugar or honey. The signature texture comes from how it's prepared. Like a meringue, eggs and sugar are whipped together quickly until the mixture is aerated and stiff.

Nougat predates mass-produced candy bars, with the confection originating in the Middle East around the 8th century. It spread to southern Europe and gained widespread popularity in 17th-century France. Nougat is still a common component in many Middle Eastern desserts today, and torrone, a type of nougat containing nuts like almonds and pistachios, is enjoyed in Italy around Christmastime.

As more large candy companies have embraced nougat, its quality has suffered over the years, with corn syrup often standing in for the sweetener. But you don't need to head to the candy aisle of your local supermarket to get your nougat fix. If you have eggs and honey in your kitchen, you can make nougat at home today.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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