On a Friday night last September, Don and I left our hotel in Uptown Butte in search of food.
We passed an upscale restaurant on Broadway, then headed past a noisy group of bikers holding beers. Then on a quieter corner, we spotted a welcoming neon sign with the words, Chop Suey!
Brick, Neon and Mountains
Actually, this is the neon image that first lured us to the corner.
We were headed literally down Main Street, just after the sun had set. There was a glow behind the mountains and a glow on the red brick building from the neon.
"What a sign!" was my first reaction.
It wasn't until we crossed the street that we could see the words "Noodle Parlors" glowing above the door. What does that even mean... parlors, as in more than one parlor?
We peered in and saw a staircase heading upward. It seemed lit up and open, but it still felt a bit daring. Then a young couple suddenly appeared. They headed in and confidently walked up. We waited a few minutes and then followed.
Up We Go
My camera flash made the stairway look a little brighter than it was. We headed up, kind of chuckling about our bravery.
We turned left into the doorway and found a decorated cashier's cage, with no one attending. Towards the front was an empty room, with community tables. Towards the rear, there was a long and curious hall.
We could hear diners behind the curtains and voices coming from the kitchen at the end of the hall. We had a few moments by ourselves, to absorb this mysterious sight.
There were Chinese lanterns and salmon-pink, bead board walls. There were curtains, that made me think of dressing rooms... and one, lone metal cart.
Our Cozy Booth
A woman with blond hair and glasses emerged from the end of the hall. She rolled the metal cart back into the kitchen, then ushered us to booth #8.
We sat at our cozy table in two wobbly soda fountain chairs, while she left us to fetch menus and tea. We sat there grinning, with raised eyebrows. "She didn't close our curtain. Are we supposed to?" It was like being in a foreign country, unsure of ourselves.
Retro Chinese Menu
The menu was hoot. There were serious reminders, written in red on the cover.
Inside the menu we found a stunning selection. There were 32 different kinds of Chop Suey and Chow Mein. We started with egg drop soup.
As we sat behind our closed curtain, I kept getting the giggles. Having our vision limited, made the nearby voices and sounds extra comical.
We could hear a family with a restless baby... clinking toasts of a romantic couple... a jabbering man monopolizing the conversation across the hall...... and every now and then the sound of a cart, rattling at great speeds down the hall... fluttering our curtain each time.
There was so darn much of it. We had Chicken Chop Suey with Noodles and Pork Choy Mein with Egg Fu Yong. This was food you can't find easily anymore, even if you live in Houston, with the largest "Asia-Town" in the States.
As for the flavors and textures and seasoning? It wasn't packed with any of that, but that's okay. It took me back to my earliest memory of Chinese food. I was 6 in 1963 when I remember eating food just like this in NYC's Chinatown. Ahhh. Simple is nice.
Since we had pulled our curtain closed, I did what I generally consider rude and grabbed my cell phone and googled the restaurant. I was stunned to learn we were in a restaurant that had been run by the same family since 1909. I was even more surprised to learn that the owner Danny Wong, (I believe his great uncle started the business) was 80 and still cooked six days a week. I was like a giddy groupie. I used the excuse of hunting down the restroom, to sneak a peek in the kitchen.
I nervously snapped a blurry photo, hoping no one would notice. I wish I had been brave enough to photograph the bathroom. There were two little saloon style doors (same salmon color) and another tiny door to the toilet. I grinned as I took a look. Then I washed my hands at a shared sink in the hallway .
When, we finished the feast our server Arlene, seemed surprised to know this was our first visit. (We must have hidden our confused expressions. ) She genuinely apologized, since she hadn't encouraged us to order their specialties.
Then she disappeared and returned with some samples of sweet and sour chicken and some kind of stuffed wontons. We nibbled the "just sweet enough" specialties, and learned more about Arlene and her work at Pekin. She was hired in 1979, back when the waitresses carried huge heavy trays in and out of those tiny rooms. After many years, they were finally allowed to use the rolling carts. "Oh Butte was different then." Arlene smiled. "It was pretty rough and tumble. Back then, we stayed open till 3 am. The bars closed at 2, so everyone headed here. It got pretty wild."
History of the Building
Arlene told us the building (which we viewed again in the morning) had been in the original Chinese District. The 2-block area was bustling during Butte's heyday in the late 1800's. The 2-story building was constructed in 1909. That year, Hum Yow and his wife Bessie Wong moved their noodle house and family to the upper level. The street level and basement housed a Chinese apothecary, a sign maker's shop and gambling casino.
Because the building was so near Butte's red-light district, there have been lots of rumors about those little curtained rooms where diners eat noodles, today. Arlene didn't say anything about the restaurant being a brothel, but she did say Chinese miners rented those tiny booths as sleeping quarters at one time. I'm sure Arlene could tell a lot of stories from her 36 years of work at The Pekin. I asked her if she'd noticed a lot of changes during that time. Arlene didn't really need to ponder that. "No. Not really.
Julie in the Lounge
After dinner, Don and I wandered towards the front of the building where we could see the neon, glowing through the window. We noticed a lounge off to the left.
We peeked in and ended up chatting with bartender, Julie. She had her own stories about the Noodle House. She talked about growing up in Butte (which she never fully respected until she moved away for a short while.) She had nothing but rave reviews of her boss, Mr. Wong. "He cooks 6 days a week!" Julie gushed. She said he was 80 years old and had enough money to retire and live comfortably anywhere, but he was so dedicated to the place.
Mr. Wong Himself
We'd been chatting with Julie for quite a while, when Mr. Wong himself strolled into the lounge in his white apron and tidy white hair.
I was star struck. He teased Julie a bit and seemed delighted that we had enjoyed our first visit to Pekin Noodle House. He was more than happy to pose for photos before heading back to the kitchen. Such a treat! What a sweet man and what a welcoming staff.
Good-Byes and Thanks
We headed out later that night. Two months later, I'm still pondering the visit. The history of Butte's Chinese community is fascinating. The fact that Danny Wong's family has run this business since 1909, says much about the Wongs.
At one time 400 to 600 Chinese rail workers, miners and later, service oriented business owners filled the 2-block Chinese community. For many complicated reasons, most of the Chinese businesses disappeared and yet this one still exists. I keep trying to learn more, but my Googling brings up conflicting stories and lots of odd food reviews. I may never know the full story of Pekin Noodle House and how it fit into this Montana world. But, I'm glad I experienced a piece of it!
The Dining Blog
This is a blog about Dining Adventures. Sometimes, I talk about food. Below, you can read how this started.
On July 4th 2011, I set a goal to try 50 culturally diverse restaurants in one year! (I knew that was possible, living in the Houston area) I spent the year pulling in friends and family to join me, on some unusual dining adventures. I met some curious people, tried some scary foods and explored places and cultures I never would have otherwise. Even though I met my goal, I learned too much to end my adventures in dining. I have continued blogging about memorable dining adventures of all kinds, near and far... and all the discoveries and funny things I've learned along the way!
Locations and types of dining adventures, are listed further down.