A tradition of hospitality: Pekin Noodle Parlor is a James Beard semifinalist

A tradition of hospitality: Pekin Noodle Parlor is a James Beard semifinalist

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The red and yellow neon glow has beckoned Butte from its second-floor perch over Main Street for more than a century.

"Chop Suey," the sign promises, and chop suey you will absolutely find upstairs at the Pekin Noodle Parlor, just as hungry miners did in 1911.

Along with it you will find warmth in many of its very best forms: Tea, soup, steaming noodles, bright colors, many smiles, and the tradition of generations.

Another word for all that is hospitality.

And for the outstanding hospitality it has lavished on Butte since 1911, the Pekin Noodle Parlor has been named a semifinalist in the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards for 2020.

Prestige and recognition have very little to do with daily life at the Pekin. Usually Jerry Tam, a member of the fifth generation of his family for whom life has centered around the restaurant, is far more concerned with stocking the cozy bar or barbecuing pork on the back porch of the restaurant's kitchen — in a gleaming, century-old gas-fired contraption — than he is with press clippings.

But this particular award means the world, the moon and the stars to him now. Just being one of 20 semifinalists is an enormous honor. The important thing for Tam is that it comes at a time when his father — the man he credits for the restaurant's past six decades of success — is in perilously bad health.

"This is for my father," he said. "He's the one who carried the tradition of hospitality."

Ding Kuen Tam, better known to thousands in Butte as "Danny Wong," took over the restaurant in the 1950s from his great-grandfather.

He's 85 now, which means he was barely in his 20s when he arrived in Butte. He had arrived as a child in San Francisco, fleeing the Japanese invasion of China before World War II. He was taken in by the family association, which gave him his first job — as a tour guide and a blackjack dealer — at age 14.

But when he came to Butte and took over the Pekin, it was a perfect match.

"He found fulfillment here," Tam said. "His life was being here every single day. He talked with absolutely everyone — politicians, service members, miners. He educated a lot of Butte, America about the Chinese culture."

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"Danny is the best boss ever. You could not find a better man to work for."

That's the sentiment of Arlene Breyer, who first came to work for Danny in 1975. She left for a time, but when she returned it was like she hadn't missed a shift.

"When I got back to town in 2004, on a Tuesday, I got a call Wednesday from Danny. 'Can you work Friday night?' he asked. I said yes, and I've been here ever since."

Pekin used to be open until 4 a.m., and the after-bar crowd was wild.

"They'd be lined up down the block at 2 a.m., most of them drunk," she laughed. "It was a madhouse, especially Fridays and Saturdays. But it was fun. Everybody had a great time."

One night, she remembers, two women got into a fight and were rolling around on the floor of the bar.

"Danny rushed in," she said. "Ever the gentleman, he said, 'Ladies, ladies! Don't fight!'"

One of them responded by biting him on the calf.

"'You are no lady!' he said to her," Breyer remembers with a laugh.

But the more enduring memory is Danny Wong's daily visits with customers. "He would go down the hall and open each curtain and talk with every guest," Breyer remembers.

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For the first half-century or so, the Pekin's color scheme was a light lime green, with dark green velveteen curtains on the restaurant's 17 enclosed booths.

"One day my father was reading an article in Bon Appetit," Tam said, "and it said that salmon color whets people's appetites. So he had the restaurant repainted."

The color is on the edge of salmon — the orange edge.

 "We call it carnival orange," Tam says with a smile.

So much is original, dating from the restaurant's earliest days — the sign, the barbecue, the booths, and the antique ice-cream-parlor-style chairs, which are still in great shape and wonderfully comfortable.

And the menu.

For a time, the restaurant served eggs, steaks and other American specialties in addition to Chinese food. But a few years ago, the menu was refocused on the Chinese specialties.

Over the past 109 years, restaurants and their cuisines have changed with the fashions of the day. And they have come and gone.

The Pekin Noodle Parlor has changed nothing. And that, in a sense, is another aspect of hospitality. It is comfortable and familiar, from the cozy little bar to the dining room for larger parties, with 6- and 12-top tables, to the 17 booths with their high bead-board walls and privacy curtains, to the food. Customers love it, they know what to expect, and they are not disappointed.

Tam says the recognition emphasizes the fact that "you don't have to go out of town to experience the best."

What's Jerry Tam's favorite Pekin meal?

"Oh, man, I cook it and eat it every day, it's all good," he said of the menu. "It's hard to narrow down. but ..." he thinks for a moment.

"The barbecued pork appetizer, you have to start with that," he says. "Soup. We have a special soup each day, a different soup for each day. Lots of people come each Saturday just for the hot and sour soup.

"Sweet and sour chicken, bowls of noodles. Curried chicken, broccoli beef. Ginger shrimp.

"Everybody likes our fried jumbo shrimp and french fries.

"And a fortune cookie for dessert."

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Tam is also deeply pleased about the honor for everyone who works there — the wait staff, the kitchen staff, the bartenders — as well as those who came before them.

"So many have worked here over the years," he said. "We used to have two shifts when we stayed open late.

"Altogether, I bet my dad has employed a thousand people. People have raised their kids here, met their husbands here."

Being in business for so long — it is believed to be the nation's oldest Chinese restaurant continuously operated by the same family — the restaurant has seen its share of celebrities. That's something Tam also does not dwell on. But nevertheless, the restaurant was a favorite of Evel Knievel's. Waylon Jennings bellied up to the bar. And in the 2015, when the boy-band zombie movie Dead 7 was being filmed, much of it in Anaconda and Butte, the Pekin became a cast favorite.

Tam remembers Howie Dorough of the Backstreet Boys celebrating his birthday, and his fellow band members and members of 98 Degrees and NSYNC harmonizing with him in the bar.

Tam grew up in the restaurant, along with his four sisters. Starting with washing dishes and drying silverware, he learned every job in the place. He would frequently have friends — students at Butte High and Butte Central — hanging out with him at the restaurant during his teen years.

His career would take a different path. After attending Santa Clara University, he would then go to Parsons School of Design in New York City. He worked in the fashion industry for several years, designing for several major houses.

But after his mother had a stroke in 2009, he came home to Butte.

"It was for the family," he said. "I wanted to spend time with her, and I wanted to help my father."

He spent more and more time at the restaurant, working with employees, taking on management chores, working in the kitchen, doing whatever needed to be done.

More recently, he has been taking care of his father, who suffered a stroke late last year and is currently in a nursing facility.

"Yes, it was a big change," moving from New York City and a fashion job back to Butte, Tam said, "But I knew exactly what I was coming back to."

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"Now," Tam says, "I'll show you where it all began."

We walk through the kitchen. The old green paint is still present here. So are a lot of very busy people, chopping vegetables, stirring food that's cooking — and smelling delicious — in huge woks, loading to-go cartons, plating food for the waitresses to take on their carts down the narrow hallway.

We head down a narrow stairway, into Butte history.

Here, for many years, gambling ruled. It is said that keno was invented in Butte. It may well have been invented in this building. A cashier's cage remains, a row of hooks where tickets to be cashed would be placed. Other more arcane gambling devices remain, including game wheels, craps and poker equipment, and a curious board with 300 number spots (Keno has 80). At one time, slot machines lined the wall of one room.

When gambling was outlawed in the '50s, Tam said, "They just turned out the lights and left." Almost everything from that era remains, in dusty profusion.

The family's living quarters were also downstairs.

In addition, herbal medicines, tea and tobacco were sold downstairs, and the tin containers remain. Food imported from China was stored in the basement depths, and old boxes and crates also remain. One room has stacks of old dishes on shelves lining the wall.

Tam walks over to an old, scuffed brown leather suitcase, and opens it.

"This is the suitcase my father brought from China to San Francisco," he said, "And from San Francisco to Butte."

Back upstairs, Tam goes to the bar and pulls a bottle of "Buddha beer," a Chinese lager in glass bottles in the shape of a Buddha, from the case.

"We have a distributor that gets it for us," he said. "People really like it."

For Jerry Tam, pleasure comes as he sees families, many of them longtime friends, sit down to eat. "The looks on the children's faces when the food comes out!" he says. "It's the best."

He knows his father wishes he could be there to see them as well.

"When I spend time with him, sometimes he says, 'I want to go home,'" Tam says. "I tease him a little, and say, "'Do you want to go home or go to Pekin?'

"He always says, 'I want to go to Pekin.'"

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