The Surprising Location Of America's Oldest Operating Chinese Restaurant

If you try to guess where the oldest operating Chinese restaurant in the United States is located, chances are you might think of Chinatown in New York. After all, there were nearly 12 million immigrants who arrived in the country by way of Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 (via NPS). But the real location that's still operating to this day isn't on one of the coasts at all. Instead, it's in the American West, where many Chinese-Americans immigrated to work in the mines or on the railroads in the 19th century (via CBS Sunday Morning).

The immigrants were primarily men, and many thousands immigrated. But by the 1870s, there was a big rise in anti-Chinese violence that took the form of lynching, beating, and shooting the immigrants who came to work. Ultimately, the negativity toward Chinese immigrants led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. However, Chinese immigrants were able to find a loophole in the law, commonly referred to as the "lo-mein loophole." Essentially, Chinese workers who came to the country as restaurant workers were allowed in or to stay. So, between 1910 and 1930, Chinese restaurants quadrupled in the United States to the point that there are now more Chinese restaurants than McDonald's even today. 

The restaurants from the time of the immigrant act were typically dubbed "chop suey" restaurants. According to author Jennifer Lee, "The word chop suey in Mandarin is zasui, which means basically odds and ends." The food wasn't authentic Chinese but appealed to Americans.

The oldest Chinese restaurant is actually in Butte, Montana

That's why the oldest operating Chinese restaurant, the Pekin Noodle Parlor, which is in Butte, Montana, has a neon sign over it that says, "Chop Suey" (via Mental Floss). The restaurant itself is on the second floor of the building where orange dining booths, made of beadboard partitions, line the walls.

The Pekin Noodle Parlor opened in 1911 and is owned and run by the fourth generation of the family. Jerry Tam, the current owner, said "this was a traditional mom-and-pop restaurant, where my mom used to work here, my dad worked here. I have four older sisters that all worked here. My first job was washing dishes. And still, I'm still washing dishes today!" Though you might not expect Butte to be the city that holds the oldest operating Chinese restaurant, that isn't the most peculiar thing about the place.

If you visit the lower levels of the building, you'll find what's left of an herbal shop on the first floor and the illegal habits that went on in the basement. There were keno boards, slot machines, and even old betting slips from the gambling that took place in the basement. Among the relics is also the suitcase that Tam's father brought with him when he moved from China in 1947 when he was 14 years old. The restaurant is certainly a slice of history worth visiting and supporting to those who live in Butte.