Visiting the oldest Chinese restaurant in America

ABC News' Juju Chang travels to Butte, Montana, home of Pekin Noodle Parlor, the oldest continuously operating, family owned Chinese restaurant in the U.S. and met fourth-generation owner Jerry Tam.
9:20 | 05/21/22

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Transcript for Visiting the oldest Chinese restaurant in America
JUJU CHANG: Butte, Montana-- once the so-called Richest Hill on Earth, a booming mining town in the late 1800s, and a destination for immigrants from around the world seeking their fortune in the mines, farms, and on the railroads. Today the city is a shadow of its glory days, but there's still hints of the Old West. Here on Main Street in old Chinatown, a flickering sign of the Old East. Standing for over a century, the Pekin Noodle Parlor remains the oldest continuously-running Chinese restaurant in America and one of the last in Butte. How many Chinese restaurants were there, and how many are there now? - There was at least a dozen in its height. But now there's only one on Main Street and two-- your traditional Chinese-Asian buffet. JUJU CHANG: Jerry Tam is the fourth generation to own this living monument to Chinese-American history. Well first of all, Pekin-- tell me about the history of the name. - The name originally came from Peking, China, but-- JUJU CHANG: Which is now known as Beijing. - Correct. And the joke is my father created this wonderful neon marquee sign, and he said the G wouldn't fit. So we're known as the Pekin Noodle Parlor. - That's amazing. The story of Pekin traces back to Tan's great-great-grandfather and great uncle opening the restaurant on the second floor of a tobacco and gaming parlor in 1911. JERRY TAM: So Hum Yow and my dad's great-grandfather came from the same village, and they partnered on this restaurant. And they brought many businesses into Butte-- Chinese Laundry, Chinese Tea. All the gambling happened, the opium. And it all happened within the confines of this building. We had a mass influx of people, and the Chinese helped build the railroads coming through Montana. So that helped with building Chinatown and all these little Chow Chow restaurants, including ours. JUJU CHANG: But Pekin's specialty, just like the sign says-- chop suey, an Americanized kitchen sink of odds and ends. So tell me, what's the signature recipe? Is that the chop suey or is it-- - So chop suey is-- the definition is just tidbits. And so when the miners came in here at all hours of the morning-- we were open basically 24 hours-- we would run out of food. So the chefs in the Chow Chows would just cut up anything-- bean sprouts, celery, onions-- just, you know, fillers-- cook it at its own vegetable gravy, and then serve it over fried chow mein noodles, and then serve it to the miners-- top with anything, any proteins-- chicken, pork, beef, mushrooms, green peppers, onions-- whatever they had. And that became an American staple-- American chop suey. - All right, so we've got-- I see celery, bean sprouts. - Yeah. - What else? - Onion. - Onion-- lots of onion. I got a peek inside the making of the famous Pekin chop suey. And now you're putting in-- - Yeah. - --corn starch. - Yeah. - And that thickens it. Jerry and his four sisters practically lived in the restaurant, watching their charismatic dad, Danny Wong build a community. After a finance degree and a thriving fashion career in New York City, Jerry returned to Montana to nurture his family's legacy. Your dad very much was a pillar of the community. What made him, do you think, transcend being Chinese-American and just be a Montanan? - And that's the best way to put it. Danny Wong wasn't Chinese. He was a Butte, Montana guy. He sponsored all the sports teams. He sponsored anybody who had any-- before the Go Fund Me, he was the original Go Fund Me. He worked here until he was 85. He passed away when he was 86. But to know that he had the most incredible life and he's done everything, but he didn't want to do it without his wife, so-- - This is like stepping back in time. It's crazy. Two stories below the dining room-- artifacts from a bygone era. This is 100-year-old Chinese China. - Yes. JUJU CHANG: Rooms filled with dusty pieces of Pekin's heyday, like this antique herbal cabinet. So these are like the Chinese herbs. JERRY TAM: The Chinese herbs. JUJU CHANG: They're still in there. Giant jars of soy sauce, cooking supplies, dishes, and woks. This is from the Korean War. And original parlor games practically frozen in time. - Roulette wheels. - Roulette wheels. The history of the Pekin Noodle Parlor mirrors the often-overlooked history of Chinese-Americans in the United States. Tam's forebears opened the Pekin amid a wave of anti-Asian racism. The influx of cheaper labor fueled discrimination leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibiting Chinese laborers from entering the country for decades. - We found a loophole, and the loophole was if you owned a Chow Chow or something that serviced the whites, then you would be allowed to migrate to the United States. JUJU CHANG: The very act keeping Asians out, helping keep Tam's family and others like them in. It was known as the Lo Mein Loophole. In 1915, restaurant owners could qualify for merchant visas to bring more workers to the US. The Chinese restaurant visa accounted for the proliferation of Chinese restaurants. Right around the time that your forbears opened the Pekin is when all of that expansion was happening. - During the height of it, meaning the Pekin was trying to sell its chop suey during the height of pure racism-- I mean, something beyond what we're seeing today-- and complete, like, theft and murder and fire. - I was reading an account in one of the newspapers, and it was like, oh, it was when all the Chinese decided to leave. And it's sort of glosses over the fact that there were a lot of incidents of Chinese being pushed out of towns-- chased out of town. - It's not so much they're being chased out of town. It's just easier to leave. It's easier to get out instead of dealing with the violence, the oppression, treated like a secondary citizen. And it's so sad that when I walk the streets of any Chinatown, I don't see it as vibrant and alive as I did as a child. JUJU CHANG: The Lo Mein Loophole inspired a boom still evident today. According to the Chinese-American Restaurant Association, there are still nearly 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States. While the Pekin Noodle Parlor survived the mining bust, the flu pandemic, and systemic racism, new challenges would come in the form of another pandemic and anti-Asian hate. Let's talk a little bit more about the COVID pandemic. How did the anti-Asian sentiment hit you during the pandemic? - When the pandemic happened, we decided to close their doors just to see-- just to see what the feeling our community was giving us. But we got the phone calls, are you open? Are you open? We decided to open up three days later. We all were masked up. We gloved up, and we just started doing takeout. I mean, we were sending down orders off of ropes down into the alley. - Oh my gosh. - We were creating a new type of food scene, meaning you stay there, we stay there. JUJU CHANG: We'll give you food. - We'll give you food. - That's how you dealt with the pandemic. How did you deal with the anti-Asian sentiment, or did you not get it? - When you have zero options to eat and the Pekin Noodle Parlor's open, you're not going to come here with your systemic racism. You're going to pay your food, and just like Seinfeld-- the Soup Nazi-- thank you. And then move. So like I said, my dad built a foundation of kindness. And everyone that's walked through this door has known this has been a place of good memories and cheer. So we don't get a lot of systemic racism so much here as you see in the bigger cities, because we're part of a community. JUJU CHANG: Today, Pekin draws tourists and locals alike. - The almond chicken, and the short ribs, and shrimp fried rice. - Hearing that it's one of the oldest-- the oldest-- was surprising but also really cool. JUJU CHANG: Always busy, carts filled with food rolling by its famed orange booths, a color Tam's father chose himself. Oh my goodness. JERRY TAM: The reason why this is carnival orange, but he called it pink salmon, is because he opened up a Bon Appetit magazine in the '80s. And they just said, this color whets the appetite of your customers. And the next day it went from lime green to orange, and everyone's like what happened? He was like, it's in Bon Appetit magazine. JUJU CHANG: While Butte is no longer called the Richest Hill on Earth, it is clear gold can still be found at the Pekin Noodle Parlor.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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