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.”

How 25 of Your Favorite Halloween Candies Got Their Names

iStock/mediaphotos
iStock/mediaphotos

Soon, small superheroes and ghosts and all sorts of other strange creatures will be canvassing your neighborhood begging for candy. But as you pass out your wares, you can also dole out some (not terribly spooky) etymologies.

1. 3 MUSKETEERS

3 Musketeers candy bar.
Erin McCarthy

When 3 Musketeers bars were introduced in 1932, they consisted of three flavors—chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry—and were labeled "The 3 Musketeers, Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry. 3 bars in a package.' Eventually the vanilla and strawberry flavors would disappear, although there’s evidence that they weren't ever particularly important flavors. A 1933 Notice of Judgment from the Acting Secretary of Agriculture describes a shipment of the treats that was seized in part because "[t]he strawberry and vanilla bars had no recognizable flavor of strawberry or vanilla and the strawberry bars were also artificially colored."

2. AIRHEADS

Pile of AirHeads candy.
Jasmin Fine, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

According to Steve Bruner, who invented the name, he had heard that it takes a generation for a candy name to become part of the collective consciousness—unless it was already a commonly used word. So he asked his children, "What would you call your friend who did something silly?" and one of them came up with 'Airhead.'

3. BUTTERFINGER

Three Butterfinger candy bars.
Amira Azarcon, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to legend, the Curtiss Candy Company of Chicago decided to run a contest to name their new candy bar, and someone suggested 'butterfinger,' a term used in the form "butter-fingered" since the early 17th century to describe someone who lets things fall from their hands.

4. CANDY CORN

Jack-o-lantern mug full of candy corn.
iStock

In the late 19th century, confections shaped like other things were all the rage (the Candy Professor tells of children then eating candies shaped like cockroaches … for Christmas). Candy corn was invented around this time, and was a stand-out novelty product because real corn kernels—which the candy vaguely resembled—were then mainly a food for livestock, not people.

5. DUM DUMS

Jar of Dum Dums lollipops.
Sarah Browning, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

According to the Spangler Candy Company, the manufacturer, the name Dum Dum was chosen because it "was a word any child could say."

6. HEATH BAR

Two Heath candy bars.
Erika Berlin

In 1914, L.S. Heath decided to buy a candy shop and soda fountain so his children could have a good career. Several years later, the family got hold of the toffee recipe (potential sources range from a traveling salesman to nearby Greek candy makers) that made them famous, especially after they started supplying candy to troops during WWII.

7. HERSHEY'S

Hershey's chocolate bars in a basket.
slgckgc, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Milton Hershey had worked for a few years in various candy businesses, but it was in Denver that he came across the caramel recipe that would become a massive hit. Not resting on his laurels, he learned of the new European craze for "milk chocolate" and brought it to the masses in America.

8. HERSHEY'S COOKIES 'N' CREME

Hershey's Cookies 'n' Creme candy bar.
Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The candy bar came about in 1994, somewhere around 15-20 years after the ice cream flavor that it was capitalizing on. Where the ice cream comes from is a mystery—claimants range from South Dakota State University to a Blue Bell Creameries employee (to make matters more difficult, many versions of the story have the invention happening after a visit to some anonymous ice cream parlor that put Oreos on their ice cream, and as early as 1959 Nabisco was suggesting that crumbled Oreos in-between layers of ice cream made a great party parfait). No matter the culinary origin, the name origin is generally agreed upon—Nabisco balked at allowing ice cream companies to use their Oreo trademark.

9. HERSHEY'S KISSES

Hershey Kisses on an orange table.
Song Zhen, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Over 100 years ago, kiss was a generic term for any number of small pieces of confectionery. So when Hershey came out with their product, it was a natural generic name. As years went by and "kiss" lost this particular meaning, Hershey was able to assert control over the name.

10. JOLLY RANCHERS

Bowl of Jolly Rancher candies.
Thomas Hawk, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

When William and Dorothy Harmsen set out to Colorado, their goal was to start a small farm/ranch. Eventually, they decided to open up an ice cream parlor named The Jolly Rancher, evoking both Western hospitality and the Jolly Miller—a hotel in their native Minnesota. The story goes that as sales declined in the winter months, the Harmsens decided to add candies to their menu, which soon outstripped the popularity of all their other offerings.

11. KIT KAT

No one is quite sure where this comes from. The oldest use of the word "kit-cat" in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1665 to describe a game more commonly known as tipcat, but this is probably coincidence. More likely is that it’s somehow related to the Kit-Cat Club of the early 18th century, which met at a place operated by a mutton pieman named something like Christopher Katt or Christopher Catling. Both he and his pies were named Kit-Kats/Kit-Cats (the prologue to the 1700 play The Reformed Wife even has a line "A Kit-Cat is a supper for a lord"), and the club took its name from either the pie or the pieman.

The jump from a gentleman's club or mutton pie to a candy is more mysterious. A popular theory is that it's related to kit-cat pictures, a type of portrait that the OED describes as "less than half-length, but [includes] the hands." But like most other hypotheses, this doesn't really work because the producer, Rowntree's, registered the name years before there was a candy to go with it, and the candy was originally known as Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp. Most likely is that someone just liked the name.

12. LIFE SAVERS

Pile of Life Savers candies.
Erika Berlin

The name Life Savers is fairly self-explanatory—they're broadly shaped like a life saver. (Any rumors of the hole existing to prevent a choking death have no merit.)

13. MILKY WAY

Milky Way candy bar.
Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Before 1970, Milky Way had a very different connotation. That year, headlines in newspapers across the country blared "FTC Decides Candy Bar Isn't Equal to Milk." The reason for this headline is that the FTC criticized Mars for implying in their advertising things like "Milky Way's nutritional value is equivalent to a glass of milk" and 'That it can and should be substituted for milk." (Odd nutrition claims were nothing new though—early on, Hershey’s advertised their chocolate bars as being "more sustaining than meat.")

While the galaxy certainly helped with the name, the original focus of the Milky Way was about how "milky" it was, and specifically that it was milkier than a malted milk you could get at a soda fountain.

14. M&M's

Bag of opened M&Ms.
iStock

The two Ms stand for Mars and Murrie. This Mars was Forrest Mars, the son of Mars candy company founder Frank Mars. Forrest and Frank had a falling out, which resulted in Forrest going to Europe and founding his own candy company (many years later, he would return to take over Mars, Inc after his father's death).

How he came up with the idea for M&M's is a bit mysterious (with versions ranging from wholesale ripoff to inspiration during the Spanish Civil War), but is generally related to a candy-covered British chocolate called Smarties (unrelated to the American Smarties). When Forrest Mars returned to the United States to make these candies, he recognized that he needed a steady supply of chocolate. At the time, Hershey was a major supplier of chocolate to other businesses and was run by a man named William Murrie. Forrest decided to go into business with William's son, Bruce (which long rumored to be a shameless ploy by Forrest to ensure a chocolate supply during World War II), and they named the candy M&M's.

15. MR. GOODBAR

Bowl of Mr. Goodbar candy bars.
Erika Berlin

According to corporate history, Hershey chemists had been working on a new peanut candy bar. As they were testing it, someone said "that's a good bar" which Milton Hershey misheard as "Mr. Goodbar."

16. REESE'S PEANUT BUTTER CUPS

Stack of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.
Sheila Sund, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Harry Burnett Reese started working for the Hershey Chocolate Company in 1916 as a dairy farmer, but after leaving and returning to Hershey's a few times over the following years, Reese set out on his own. His great peanut butter cup invention was supposedly inspired by a store owner who told him that they were having difficulties with their supplier of chocolate-covered peanut butter sweets.

17. SKITTLES

Bags of Skittles in a vending machine.
calvinnivlac, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Skittles originated in the United Kingdom, where "skittles" is a type of bowling, either on lawns or on a tabletop in pubs. The phrase "beer and skittles" emerged to describe pure happiness (now more commonly seen in "life is not beer and skittles"). So the name for the candy likely emerged to associate it with fun.

18. SNICKERS

Bunch of Snickers fun size candies.
iStock

The candy bar was named after the Mars family horse. The Mars family was very into horses, even naming their farm the Milky Way Farm—which produced the 1940 Kentucky Derby champion Gallahadion.

19. SOUR PATCH KIDS

Two bags of Sour Patch Kids.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Originally called Mars Men, the Sour Patch Kid was renamed to capitalize on the popularity of the '80s craze of Cabbage Patch Kids.

20. TOBLERONE

Close-up of a Toblerone candy bar.
Helena Eriksson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Toblerone is a portmanteau of the candy inventor—Theodor Tobler—and torrone, a name for various Italian nougats. As for the distinctive triangle shape, it's generally credited to the Swiss Alps, but Toblerone’s UK site suggests something a little racier—"a red and cream-frilled line of dancers at the Folies Bergères in Paris, forming a shapely pyramid at the end of a show.”

21. TOOTSIE ROLL

Pile of Tootsie Roll candies.
Lynn Friedman, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The official story is that in the late 19th century, Leo Hirschfeld invented the Tootsie Roll—Tootsie coming from his daughter's nickname. But the Candy Professor has blown multiple holes in the official story, finding evidence from patents to trademark filings that show Tootsie Rolls came into existence circa 1907. And as for the Tootsie? The Candy Professor has also found that the company that applied for those trademarks had an earlier product called Bromangelon that had as a mascot the character "Tattling Tootsie." Whether this Tootsie was named after Hirschfeld’s daughter or something mysterious is still debated.

22. TWIX

Twix candy bar.
iStock

The meaning behind Twix has been lost to time (and marketing). But the general consensus is that it's a portmanteau of twin and sticks (stix), or possibly twin and mix.

23. TWIZZLERS

Bag of Twizzlers candy.
iStock

Another term where the true origin is unknown, but it’s certainly related to the word twizzle, which dates back to the 18th century. One of the definitions the Oxford English Dictionary gives is "To twirl, twist; to turn round; to form by twisting."

24. YORK PEPPERMINT PATTIES

Two York Peppermint Patties
Barb Watson, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The popular patties were originally created by the York Cone Company out of York, Pennsylvania, which made ice cream cones before going all in on their new invention. As for the "Peanuts" character Peppermint Patty, Charles Schulz said that the name inspiration was "A dish of candy sitting in our living room." But as the York version was still regional at the time, the inspiration was probably a different peppermint patty.

25. BABY RUTH

Pile of Baby Ruth mini candy bars.
Erika Berlin

A debate for the ages. Otto Schnering named the bar after either Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland (whose New York Times obituary said, "She was known to the Nation as 'Baby Ruth' while she was a child in the White House") or Babe Ruth, the famous baseball player. While Baby Ruth was a very popular name (and not just for Presidential daughters. An actress at the time of the candy bar’s introduction was known as "Baby" Ruth Sullivan), Babe Ruth proponents point out that Cleveland’s daughter died in 1904, around 17 years before the candy was introduced. But claims of a recently discovered court document has Schnering answering under oath the question "When you adopted the trade mark Baby Ruth…did you at that time [take] into consideration any value that the nickname Babe Ruth…might have?”

Schnering responded, "The bar was named for Baby Ruth, the first baby of the White House, Cleveland, dating back to the Cleveland administration…There was a suggestion, at the time, that Babe Ruth, however not a big figure at the time as he later developed to be, might have possibilities of developing in such a way as to help our merchandising of our bar Baby Ruth."

The Reason White Castle Slider Burgers Have Five Holes

White Castle
White Castle

While it’s not often mentioned in conversations about the best fast food burger on the menu alongside staples like Shake Shack or In-N-Out, the White Castle slider burger still holds a special place in the stomachs of those who enjoy their bite-sized convenience. In 2014, TIME even named the slider the most influential burger of all time, with its debut in 1921 helping begin our nation’s obsession with fast-service burgers.

Peel the bun off a White Castle burger and you’ll find the square meat patty has exactly five holes. Why? Thrillist writer Wil Fulton went looking for an answer to this gastronomic mystery. It turns out that the holes serve a very functional purpose.

In 1954, a Cincinnati-based White Castle employee named Earl Howell stuffed his location’s suggestion box with a note that said the patties might cook more quickly if they were pierced. The reason? The franchise steams its burgers on the grill, and the holes allow the steam to better penetrate the stacks of patties (usually 30 burgers tall) that are piled on the grill at one time. No one has to flip the burgers, and they wind up coming out of the kitchen faster. The steam also picks up the flavor of the onion acting as a bottom layer, allowing it to spread through the stack.

Howell’s idea soon spread from Ohio to White Castle restaurants nationwide. The company facilitates the creation of the holes by puncturing a “meat log” and then slicing it and sending the patties to locations.

If you enjoy their distinctive flavor, the holes have a lot to do with it. Enjoy.

[h/t Thrillist]

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