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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.”

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Eggnog
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Eggnog: you know it's delicious, but did you know it once led to a riot at West Point? In honor of National Eggnog Month (which runs all of December), join us as we raise our glasses to one of the most popular beverages of the season with these fascinating facts.

1. EGGNOG MOST LIKELY ORIGINATED IN MEDIEVAL TIMES.


Lady Macbeth by George Cattermole, via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most historians trace eggnog back to “posset,” a hot milk-based drink comprised of spices and wine, which became popular as early as the 14th century. Though it was mostly consumed as a cozy cocktail, it was also used as a soothing remedy for colds and flu. Posset remained a mainstay into Shakespeare’s era, though it was famously used for nefarious purposes in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth drugged the guards’ possets outside King Duncan’s chambers.

2. GEORGE WASHINGTON HAD A (NOW-FAMOUS) SUPER-BOOZY EGGNOG RECIPE.


Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Our first president apparently enjoyed serving eggnog during Christmas at Mount Vernon; according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, it was one of his favorite concoctions. The recipe continues to circulate widely today, even though Washington forgot to include the number of eggs needed (hey, improvise!). And here it is, in his exact words:

One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, ½ pint rye whiskey, ½ pint Jamaica rum, ¼ pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.

3. DWIGHT EISENHOWER WAS ALSO A PROPONENT OF BOOZY ‘NOG.


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One of the 34th president’s favorite ways to de-stress was to cook, according to National Journal. “By the time he left office, Dwight Eisenhower had concocted a hearty collection of recipes, chronicled in his post presidential papers,” write Marina Koren, Brian Resnick and Matt Berman. “There was his famous vegetable soup and beef stew, warm hush puppies, and lemon chiffon pie. [...] But nothing could get you drunk faster than Ike’s eggnog.”

Ike’s recipe calls for one dozen egg yolks, one pound of granulated sugar, one quart of bourbon, one quart of coffee cream (half & half), and one quart of whipping cream. National Journal whipped up some of Ike’s eggnog, and found it a “very alcoholic, surprisingly light and creamy (in density, not in richness or calories) nog.”

4. HEAVILY SPIKED EGGNOG ONCE CAUSED AN INFAMOUS WEST POINT RIOT.


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The Eggnog Riot, a.k.a. The Grog Mutiny, was a Christmas soiree gone very wrong at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1826. Earlier that year, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, West Point’s superintendent, had forbidden alcohol on campus. Known as the “Father of West Point,” Thayer turned what had once been an academy consisting of an undisciplined student body and a derelict campus into the respected institution West Point is today, according to Natasha Geiling in her very detailed telling of the riot for Smithsonian magazine. “Eggnog was a traditional part of West Point’s annual Christmas celebration, but Thayer’s moratorium on alcohol threw a wrench in the festivities,” Geiling writes. “Not to be denied a night of revelry, some cadets set about smuggling in liquor from nearby taverns for the holiday party.”

The cadets proceeded to get rip-roaring drunk, and the night resulted in smashed crockery and windows, broken furniture, the drawing of swords (no one was hurt), gunshots (only a doorjamb was harmed), and a knocked-down lieutenant. Once the “party” was over, 19 cadets were expelled.

The U.S. Army also has a telling of the Eggnog Riot on its official homepage, and the article concludes thusly: “Years have passed since the cadets overindulged on eggnog, but the moral of their story is still applicable. Too much of the ‘good stuff’ can lead to serious consequences. So remember this story as the holiday parties approach; let's not let one night of fun alter our future as 19 West Point cadets had.”

5. WHEN STARBUCKS REMOVED THE EGGNOG LATTE FROM ITS HOLIDAY MENU, THERE WAS A FLURRY OF COMPLAINTS..


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In 2014, Starbucks dropped the Eggnog Latte from its offerings. According to USA Today, there was immediate customer backlash. “The coffee kingpin will bring back its seasonal Eggnog Latte nationwide this month after a customer revolt spread from letters to phone calls to social media,” reporter Bruce Horovitz wrote. “It had dropped the beverage, a seasonal offering since 1986, to try to simplify its expanding menu.” Starbucks even issued an apology: "We made a mistake," said spokeswoman Linda Mills. "We are very sorry."

On its blog, Starbucks credits the very first, original Eggnog Latte to Il Giornale, a small, Italian-themed coffee chain in Seattle. Il Giornale’s owner was Howard Schultz, who bought Starbucks in 1987 and then continued the Eggnog Latte tradition at the now-behemoth coffee chain.

6. PUERTO RICO HAS ITS OWN HOLIDAY-SEASON DRINK THAT’S SIMILAR TO EGGNOG.

Coquito is a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas drink, and it’s typically made with coconut milk, rum, nutmeg, cinnamon, and, depending on the chef, sometimes condensed milk, and sometimes egg yolks. The Museo del Barrio in New York City hosts an popular annual Coquito Masters contest during the holiday season.

“Coquito is a very important tradition in the Puerto Rican community. Everyone has their own recipe,” Debbie Quiñones, founder of the contest, told the New York Times in 2009. At the contest covered in the article, one woman competed with her father’s secret recipe, which her mother had stolen for her from his hiding place: a metal safe under his bed. Another contestant used his grandmother’s recipe. “Everyone has a little quirk that they think makes it better than everyone else’s,” Dr. Frank Estrada, another contestant who was competing with an old family recipe, said. “I can’t sell it, because if I was to put a price on it, of what I think it’s worth, they couldn’t afford it.”

7. IT IS IMPORTANT TO CHUG EGGNOG WITH CAUTION—EVEN NON-ALCOHOLIC 'NOG.

In 2014, Ryan Roche of Lehi, Utah, officially became “Utah man hospitalized after chugging eggnog.” Roche’s story of eggnog chugging gone awry became national news, all because he decided to engage in an alcohol-free eggnog-chugging contest as part of an office holiday party.

According to BuzzFeed News, Roche was on his way out the door when he heard his boss yell, “Roche, get up here!” Roche then chugged a whole quart of eggnog in 12 seconds flat. “I just opened up the carton and pretty much poured it down my throat,” Roche told reporter Jim Dalrymple. “I didn’t take a breath of air.”

Roche left the party coughing, but he figured he would soon be fine. Instead, ended up in the hospital, where he spent a day in the Intensive Care Unit, and another two days in recovery. The doctors determined Roche had inhaled some of the eggnog, and he was given antibiotics.

8. EGGNOG CAN ALSO BE REFERRED TO AS A “HELL’S ANGEL.”


Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use

In Stella Gibbons’s 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm, one of the main characters makes a beverage called a Hell’s Angel, consisting of one egg, one teaspoon of cream, two ounces of brandy, and some ice.

9. DAVID LETTERMAN LIKED TO INCORPORATE EGGNOG INTO HIS LATE SHOW HOLIDAY TRADITIONS.

David Letterman was famous for his oddball holiday traditions, such as annual target practice involving the giant meatball that topped the Late Show’s Christmas tree in lieu of a traditional star, bow, or angel. And of course, some of his odd holiday shenanigans incorporated eggnog. One year, Letterman drenched his film crew with a Super Soaker filled with eggnog. Another year, the Goo Goo Dolls performed their hit song “Name” with nothing particularly unusual about the performance ... until they dove into a giant glass of eggnog.

10. DECEMBER 24TH IS NATIONAL EGGNOG DAY.

So what are you waiting for? Find your favorite eggnog recipe. Add some booze, or don’t. Dive in. Don’t forget to come up for air. And, as George Washington advised, taste frequently!

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Celebrate the Holidays With Candy Canes That Taste Like Pickles, Gravy, Wasabi, and Bacon
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Candy canes are a classic seasonal snack that you can pluck right off the tree. Some might argue that the traditionally red-and-white candies are perfect the way they are, but some holiday deviants disagree. If you're sick of peppermint, perhaps we could tempt you with a candy cane that tastes like a pickle?


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Believe it or not, Amazon has a whole slew of questionable candy cane flavors for purchase: You can try intriguing flavors like bacon, wasabi, gravy, coffee, and, of course, pickles.


Amazon

The unusual flavors are perfect for anyone with daring taste buds—or a wicked sense of humor. The pickle ones are decorated in bright green, so they look festive enough for even the most traditional tree. 


Amazon

If you're looking for something equally quirky but not necessarily disgusting, there are also flavors inspired by different sodas and sour Warheads.

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