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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New Plant-Based Coating Can Keep Your Avocados Fresh for Twice as Long
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Apeel

Thanks to a food technology startup called Apeel Sciences, eating fresh avocados will soon be a lot easier. The Bill Gates–backed company has developed a coating designed to keep avocados fresh for up to twice as long as traditional fruit, Bloomberg reports, and these long-lasting avocados will soon be available at 100 grocery stores across the Midwestern U.S. Thirty or so of the grocery stores involved in the limited rollout of the Apeel avocado will be Costcos, so feel free to buy in bulk.

Getting an avocado to a U.S. grocery store is more complicated than it sounds; the majority of avocados sold in the U.S. come from California or Mexico, making it tricky to get fruit to the Midwest or New England at just the right moment in an avocado’s life cycle.

Apeel’s coating is made of plant material—lipids and glycerolipids derived from peels, seeds, and pulp—that acts as an extra layer of protective peel on the fruit, keeping water in and oxygen out, and thus reducing spoilage. (Oxidation is the reason that your sliced avocados and apples brown after they’ve been exposed to the air for a while.) The tasteless coating comes in a powder that fruit producers mix with water and then dip their fruit into.

A side-by-side comparison of a coated and uncoated avocado after 30 days, with the uncoated avocado looking spoiled and the coated one looking fresh
Apeel

According to Apeel, coating a piece of produce in this way can keep it fresh for two to three times longer than normal without any sort of refrigeration of preservatives. This not only allows consumers a few more days to make use of their produce before it goes bad, reducing food waste, but can allow producers to ship their goods to farther-away markets without refrigeration.

Avocados are the first of Apeel's fruits to make it to market, but there are plans to debut other Apeel-coated produce varieties in the future. The company has tested its technology on apples, artichokes, mangos, and several other fruits and vegetables.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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The Popcorn Company That's Creating Jobs for Adults With Autism
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A New Jersey-based gourmet popcorn company is dedicating its profits to creating new employment “popportunities” for adults on the autism spectrum, A Plus reports.

Popcorn for the People, founded by Rutgers University professor Dr. Barbie Zimmerman-Bier and her husband, radiologist Dr. Steven Bier, is a nonprofit subsidiary of the couple's charitable organization Let’s Work For Good, which focuses on "creating meaningful and lasting employment for adults with autism and developmental disabilities." Recognizing the lack of skilled employment options for adults with developmental disabilities, the Biers decided to create jobs themselves through this popcorn venture, with all of the profits going to their charitable organization. According to the site, every tin of popcorn purchased "provides at least an hour of meaningful employment" to adults with autism and other developmental disabilities, who perform jobs like making popcorn, labeling products, and marketing.

The couple developed the idea for the business and the nonprofit in 2015 when their son, Sam, grew tired of his job at a grocery store. Sam, 27, is on the autism spectrum, and after six years of working as a “cart guy,” he decided he was ready to try something new. Employment opportunities were scarce, though. Jobs that provided enough resources for someone on the spectrum tended to consist of menial work, and more skilled positions involved a tough interview process.

“Some companies mean well, but they are limited in what they can offer,” Steven Bier told TAP Into East Brunswick in 2015.

Unemployment rates are especially high among adults with autism. Last year, Drexel University reported that only 14 percent of autistic adults who use state-funded disability services are employed in paid work positions. And while high-functioning autistic adults are often perfectly capable of working in technical careers, the actual process of getting hired can be challenging. People with autism tend to struggle with understanding nuance and social conventions, which makes the interviewing process particularly difficult.

Enter the Biers' popcorn business. What began in 2015 as the Pop-In Cafe (which still sells popcorn and deli items at its New Jersey location) now distributes flavored popcorn all over the world. In three years, the organization has gone from a staff of four, with one employee on the autism spectrum, to a staff of 50, nearly half of whom are on the spectrum. In July, the organization plans to expand to a larger production facility in order to keep up with demand.

The company provides an environment for employees to learn both hard skills, like food preparation and money management, and what the company describes as “watercooler life skills.”

"There just aren't many programs that teach these sorts of things in a real-world environment, with all that entails," Bier told My Central Jersey. "These are skills that the kids can use here, and elsewhere."

According to A Plus, you can now buy Popcorn for the People in person at locations like the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and the Lyric Theatre in Times Square. The organization sells 12 flavors of popcorn (including cookies and cream, Buffalo wing, and French toast), all created by Agnes Cushing-Ruby, a chef who donates 40 hours a week to the company.

“I never thought that the little pop-up shop would grow into this,” Sam told A Plus. “It makes me so happy to see we have helped so many people.”

[h/t A Plus]

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