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.”

14 Secrets of Food Sample Demonstrators

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Ever turn a corner in your local grocery store or warehouse club and see the aisle backed up? You might be able to blame a food sample demonstrator, those stationary sales representatives who invite congestion in stores by offering up free bites of food products in an effort to raise sales. (The strategy works—one study found that samples can increase sales by as much as 2000 percent.)

The task might look easy, but it isn’t. Sample demonstrators have to endure annoyed customers who can’t navigate aisles due to the traffic, unattended kids, and more—all while adhering to food safety regulations. To get a better perspective on the job, Mental Floss spoke with two former demonstrators. Here’s what we found out about life in the apron.

1. THEY’RE USUALLY NOT EMPLOYED BY THE STORE.

Food demonstrators are often mistaken for store employees, but they're usually not. The people working behind sample trays at Costco, for example, are often employed by Club Demonstration Services (CDS), a separate entity that hires sample representatives to present products endorsed by Costco and usually backed by the product manufacturer. (Companies can send their own reps out, too.) “CDS might have an office set up in the back of the store,” says Jim, a former food sample demonstrator for Costco locations in California. “We’d sign in, go through the warehouse, and get a quick brief on the product we were demonstrating.”

Though CDS is owned by Costco, CDS employees aren’t technically store employees, and don’t migrate to other work areas. But because customers figure the demonstrators work for the warehouse, they’re often asked for directions. “People just assume you know where stuff is,” Jim says. “I usually told them to find someone in a red vest.”

2. THEY CAN SPEND HALF THEIR SHIFT PREPPING.

A man mixes ingredients in a bowl
iStock

It may seem like a sample demonstrator is burning calories at the rate of a Queen's Guard, but they're usually very busy during the course of a six- or eight-hour shift. Food prep—including mixing ingredients for things like chicken salad or cooking steak strips—can take up as much as half of their time. It’s worth it, as cooked food has a huge advantage over ready-to-eat samples like chips. “There’s a kind of anticipation you build up when cooking something like steak,” Jim says. “It could take a few minutes or 45 minutes, and people are standing there asking when it will be ready.”

3. THEY NEED TO STAY WITHIN A 12-FOOT RADIUS OF THE CART.

Food sample demonstrators may sometimes work in a massive warehouse, but they don’t have the run of the property. Once they’ve settled into their work area—typically near where the product they’re demonstrating is stocked or wherever there’s free space in the building—they’re expected to never be more than 12 feet away from the cart. “The 12-foot radius has to do with the fact that you’re responsible for maintaining your station and keeping customers safe,” says Skyler, a former demonstrator for Costco. “If a kid sees an unattended station with a hot grill running and grabs a sample off of it and burns themselves, it’s a liability.” Demonstrators also need to make sure no one is grabbing a sample and then putting it back, which would be a gross (literally) violation of food handling safety. Once you touch it, it goes either in your mouth or in the garbage.

4. THEY FOLLOW AN ACRONYM FOR SALES SUCCESS.

Vice-president Joe Biden greets food sample servers at a Costco
Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

Food sample pushers don’t work on commission, but they can get bonuses if they sell through their inventory, so it benefits them to make sure people are consuming what they’re offering. One method for enticing customers is what Jim describes as a corporate acronym called SITGA. “It stands for Smile, Invite, Talk, Give Sample, and Ask,” he says. Demonstrators are also free to come up with their own strategy. “I liked to rhyme, like ‘come on by, give it a try,’ that sort of thing.”

5. THEY HAVE TRICKS FOR STAVING OFF BOREDOM.

Speaking with the Yes and Yes blog, Sam's Club food demo specialist Jan said that the hours spent sporadically interacting with customers can require demonstrators to make up their own fun. "I deal with the boredom in several ways. I practice standing on one foot and count the seconds before I lose my balance ... I count and rearrange samples. I reorganize the equipment under my cart. I alphabetize equipment. I grab items off the shelves and read the ingredient and nutrition labels, read slogans on T-shirts, or I try to engage customers in conversation."

6. THEY GET TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME RESPONSES.

A man in an apron looks tired
iStock

Sometimes it's hard to tell what's worse—going for long stretches without customers, or hearing the canned answers they love to give over and over (and over) again. "Customers make stock remarks about certain foods," Jan said. "If you serve sausage, they ask, 'Where are the pancakes?' If you serve a cold drink, they say it would be better with vodka. Coffee samples inevitably get, 'Now I need a donut.'"

7. THEY HAVE TO DEAL WITH “SAMPLE NINJAS” ...

There’s usually no cap on the number of samples a customer can grab from a cart. Still, people can feel a degree of embarrassment going back for seconds—or thirds—and sometimes try to sneak a taste without being seen. Skyler calls these people “sample ninjas” for their attempts to go undetected. “People love free food,” he says. “They don’t want to be seen as freeloaders, they don’t want to hear a sales pitch, they just want snacks.”

8. ... BUT THAT SHAME CAN WORK IN THE STORE’S FAVOR.

A woman examines a supermarket shelf
iStock

When people are so addicted to a food sample they keep going back for more, they might opt to just buy the product rather than risk being perceived as a greedy shopper. “There have been cases where I’ve been shopping at Costco myself and went and bought something because my overwhelming shame kept me from grabbing a fifth sample,” Skyler says. “The system works.”

9. THEY HAVE A HEIGHT POLICY.

Kids represent a dilemma for demonstrators. If they’re unaccompanied by a parent, it can be potentially problematic to offer up a baked good or other food that could contain an allergen. Fortunately, most kids are aware of their food sensitivities. According to Jim, the unofficial rule of thumb is to give out samples to unattended children if they’re tall enough to see what’s on the cart. “We can’t really determine the age of a kid just by looking,” he says. “They just need to be tall enough to see the sample and discern what it is.”

10. THEY HAVE REGULARS.

Food samples are set out on a tray
iStock

Many Costco demonstrators stick to one store or district, making them a familiar face for people who shop there frequently. “There were definitely regulars,” Skyler says. “I would see old teachers from school, old friends, new friends, and regulars who would know my sales pitch and always play along—for more free samples, obviously.” Others were memorable for other reasons. “I was making cookies once and a woman grabbed the raw cookie dough and yelled at me because it was not cooked.”

11. THEY DEMO NON-EDIBLE PRODUCTS, TOO.

While Jim estimates that 90 percent of his time was spent demonstrating food, CDS also handles accounts for a variety of indigestible products, like Ziploc bags. “I’ve done dish soap and laundry soap, which is hard to demonstrate on the floor,” he says. “You have to give someone a sample and hope they try it and then come back.” Another time, Costco charged him with selling prefabricated outdoor tool sheds. “No one is buying a $3000 shed on the spot. They take a flyer. We didn’t get a sale the entire week.”

12. THEY HAVE A PLAN TO MAKE SURE NO FOOD GOES TO WASTE.

Food sits in a trash can
iStock

Toward the end of their shift, demonstrators start to estimate how many more samples they’ll need to meet remaining demand without setting out food that will wind up going to waste. “I do what I can not to waste anything,” Jim says. “We’ll usually make sure we’re done cooking by a certain time so nothing is left over.” Sealed food might go to a food pantry, depending on store policies, but prepared and unused food goes into the garbage. And no, it's not going to the demonstrators: They’re prohibited from taking the excess home.

13. NOT EVERYTHING THEY MAKE IS APPETIZING TO THEM.

Sample demonstrators are usually expected to taste their supply so they can make informed comments when a customer presses for details. While most everything is intended to be delicious, it may not necessarily be the demonstrator's own personal preference. "[I served] horrifying steak chimichangas, microwaved," Jan told Yes and Yes. "When cut into bite sized pieces, [they] squirt out a nasty brown liquid. Worse yet, lots of people liked them."

14. THEY APPRECIATE A LITTLE CUSTOMER ETIQUETTE.

Food samples are set out on a tray
iStock

While free food can cause some of us to abandon civility and manners, food sample demonstrators always appreciate when customers acknowledge they have a job to do—and it’s not to hand out free stuff. Listening to their sales pitch is the polite thing to do in exchange for the eats. “Just try to remember that it’s a sales job and that final sale number is being held over the sample demonstrators’ heads,” Skyler says. “They’re not just someone being paid to hand out food to boost customer morale.”

What Did Elvis Presley's Famous Peanut Butter-Bacon-Banana Sandwich Taste Like? Try It for Yourself

iStock
iStock

Elvis Presley was not what you would call a healthy eater. He reportedly loved bacon-wrapped meatballs, burgers, chicken-fried steak, fried pickles, pound cake, and of course, his signature PBBB sandwich, which took peanut butter, bacon, and banana and smashed them between two slices of white bread.

In honor of The King's favorite food, The Takeout decided to try the PBBB out for themselves. Although some may recoil at this artery-clogging concoction, the food news site gave the sandwich a big thumbs up, citing its balance of sweet and salty flavors and smooth and crunchy textures as major selling points.

According to Salon, Elvis's longtime cook, Pauline Nicholson, may have been the first person to serve Elvis a peanut butter and banana sandwich (but no word on when bacon was thrown into the mix).

The recipe is pretty straightforward, but it eliminates the sticky situation of having to put butter on one side of the bread and peanut butter on the other. Instead of butter, bacon grease is used to toast the bread.

For the ingredients, you'll need two slices of white bread, four strips of bacon, two tablespoons of peanut butter, and one sliced banana. First, fry up the bacon in a pan; while you're doing that, spread peanut butter on one side of each piece of bread. When the bacon is done, remove it from the pan, but leave the grease.

Next, place the bread (peanut butter side up) into the pan, and place the banana slices and bacon on one piece of bread. When both pieces are toasted to your liking, put the sandwich together, give it one more flip in the pan, and press it down until the peanut butter starts to ooze.

And there you have it: a deliciously, sinfully fattening sandwich. Enjoy responsibly.

[h/t The Takeout]

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