An exterior shot of a brick building

Chicago Cafe:

California's Oldest Chinese Restaurant

Chicago Cafe: California鈥檚 Oldest Chinese Restaurant

Historical Research Project Reveals a Legacy of Resilience Despite Decades of Asian Exclusion

A step into Woodland, California鈥檚, Chicago Cafe is an immediate leap into the past. 

Customers sit on black swivel stools at a classic diner counter enjoying $12 combination plates heaped with chow mein, pork fried rice, fried shrimp and egg foo young (hot tea and fortune cookie included 鈥 cash only). 

Regulars know to enter the shotgun-layout restaurant through the kitchen in back, where boisterous cafe owner Paul Fong, 75, greets customers before turning back to cook alongside his wife, Nancy, 67. 

Two people stand in an old kitchen
Paul and Nancy Fong in the kitchen at the Chicago Cafe (Jose Alfonso Perez/澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图)

Their lone employee, server Dianna Olstad, 57, delivers iced water to tables in throwback red plastic tumblers, sprinkles 鈥渉oneys鈥 and 鈥渟weeties鈥 like salt and pepper, and good-naturedly chides customers who go too long between visits to the cafe. 

鈥淪he has gotten on me for not showing up,鈥 said Wes Hensley, 36, during a Tuesday lunch in September with his parents, Lori Hensley, 63, and Gene Hensley, 65. A lifelong Woodland resident and Chicago Cafe customer, Wes 鈥減robably has only been here a half-dozen times this year,鈥 he admitted somewhat sheepishly. His mom, on the other hand, dines at the cafe at least once a week. 

The scene is charmingly 鈥 almost cinematically 鈥 retro, a reminder of when this Sacramento and Davis suburb of 62,000 was still a small farm town. But the cafe鈥檚 significance goes well beyond Woodland, where for families like the Hensleys, it has just always seemed to be there.

澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图 School of Law Professor is leading interdisciplinary research into the restaurant, a piece of living history standing amid the vestiges of Woodland鈥檚 one-time Chinatown. With a group of students, Chin aims to document the diner鈥檚 past and how such institutions reflect the Chinese American experience. After a deep dive into local archives, they have concluded the Chicago Cafe might be the oldest continuously running Chinese restaurant in California and perhaps even the United States.

Researching the nation鈥檚 oldest Chinese restaurants

Owned by three generations of the Fong family, the cafe has operated at least since 1910, according to the 澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图 research, or 1903, according to the Fongs and some tantalizing yet unverifiable mentions elsewhere. 

In 2022, Chin鈥檚 Asian Exclusion Research Project brought together a cohort of law students led by Natasha Kang, J.D. 鈥23, along with English, comparative literature and history scholars. The students researched the restaurant in the Yolo County Archives, other libraries, online and through interviews. They could not nail down the Chicago Cafe鈥檚 1903 date in part because city directories of the day excluded Asian-owned businesses. But either year of origin establishes the cafe as the longest-running in the state 鈥 longer even than San Francisco鈥檚 venerable . The 1910 provenance also puts the Woodland cafe in close historical proximity to Butte, Montana鈥檚, , which dates to either 1909 or 1911 and is widely recognized as the nation鈥檚 oldest Chinese restaurant. 

For any American restaurant to survive for more than a century is remarkable considering the built-in uncertainties of an industry where most businesses don鈥檛 make it to five years. But the Woodland and Butte cafes鈥 longevity is nothing short of extraordinary given the hostile environment Chinese immigrants faced well into the 20th century, the 澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图 scholars assert in their new paper .鈥&苍产蝉辫;

The paper details how a 鈥渞acist federal immigration regime鈥 kept Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens or outright banned them from immigrating. As Chin previously explored in his widely publicized 2018 Duke Law Journal article dining establishments were a particular target of legal and union-led efforts to limit business competition. 

Yet Chinese restaurants, conversely, also offered a 鈥渞are economic lifeline,鈥 Chin explained. 

Two men stand with a small group of students inside a restaurant
Professor Gabriel 鈥淛ack鈥 Chin is working with a multidisciplinary group of students to document the Chicago Cafe鈥檚 past and how such institutions reflect the Chinese American experience. (Gregory Urquiaga/澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图)

鈥淐hinese restaurants were a business that, at least according to some courts in some periods, allowed Chinese people to immigrate notwithstanding the Chinese exclusion laws. Because merchants were allowed to immigrate. And some courts held that Chinese restaurant operators were merchants.鈥&苍产蝉辫;

That 鈥渕erchant鈥 designation came with tight restrictions: Chinese restaurant owners were not to engage in manual labor. They could write checks to vendors, but not wait on customers, or cook. As Chin noted in the new paper: 鈥淎n immigrant Wolfgang Puck or Gordon Ramsay of a century ago could secure their status through naturalization,鈥 but if equally famous, Chinese-born chef and 澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图 alum Martin Yan 鈥73, M.S. 鈥77, had arrived in the United States in 1915, he would have been 鈥渟ubject to deportation if he picked up a wok.鈥

The ongoing Asian Exclusion Research Project aims to publish specific academic works like the new paper while creating a database of 鈥渟ome of the basic materials about Asian exclusion鈥 for scholarly, journalistic and legislative reference, Chin said. A prolific, oft-cited scholar of immigration law, criminal procedure and race and the law, Chin has investigated examples of Asian exclusion throughout his three decades in the legal academy. In 2014, Chin and the law school鈥檚 Asian Pacific American Law Students Association successfully petitioned the California Supreme Court to posthumously admit Hon Yen Chang, a lawyer denied the right to practice in the 1800s, to the state bar.

The Fong family history: Family business, heritage and Chinese-American resilience

The Fong family, like Yan, hails from China鈥檚 Guangdong province. Paul and Nancy arrived in the 1970s as part of the family鈥檚 staggered entry into the U.S. 

鈥淲hen my great-grandfather was an adult, that鈥檚 when he came over and ran the restaurant,鈥 said Andy Fong, 44, who is Paul and Nancy鈥檚 son and the family鈥檚 unofficial historian. 鈥淭he rest of [his] family was still in China. When my grandpa got to a certain age in his adulthood, he came over, and he started working in the restaurant. Then my parents finally came over.鈥&苍产蝉辫; 

The Fongs 鈥渞eally used this as a platform for immigration and becoming part of the larger community,鈥 Chin said. But aspects of the cafe鈥檚 history inevitably were lost to time. Like the origins of its Midwestern name. 

鈥淢y grandfather opened it, and everybody asks me the question, 鈥榃hy do they call it 鈥楥hicago鈥?鈥欌 Paul Fong said during a rare break from work at the cafe on that Tuesday. 鈥淚 have no idea. That was 120 years ago. Maybe he came [via] Chicago.鈥 (The 澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图 research shows the name 鈥淐hicago鈥 was used in association with Chinese restaurants in various parts of the country.)

Black and white image of Woodland's Main Street in the mid-20th century
Woodland鈥檚 Main Street in the mid-20th century included a variety of Chinese restaurants.
The outside of the Chicago Caf茅 building on Main Street in Woodland
The outside of the Chicago Cafe building on Main Street in Woodland (Gregory Urquiaga/澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图)

What鈥檚 more certain is that the tradition of successive generations of Fongs assuming ownership will stop with Paul and Nancy. 

Andy Fong lives in the Bay Area, where he works in tech as a quality engineer. His sister, Amy, 46, lives in Woodland but has her own career as a doctor of physical therapy.

鈥淭hey both say, 鈥榊ou work in the restaurant, you鈥檙e going to work 13-, 14-hour days,鈥欌 Paul Fong said of Andy and Amy. 鈥淭hey both have good jobs and raised a family, and I am glad for that.鈥濃 

Andy, who like his sister went to the restaurant rather than home each day after school, and swept floors and washed dishes, recalls a specific conversation with his father when he was young. 

鈥淗e sat my sister and I down and said, 鈥楬ey, you guys are going to go to college. You are not going to do what I am doing.鈥欌 

Observed Chin: 鈥淭here is鈥痑n irony here that in some sense, the reason you have a Chinese restaurant is solely so that your kids don鈥檛 have to work in a Chinese restaurant. And that鈥檚 wonderful that the [Fong] kids have charted their own path. But historic Chinese restaurants are still important, and there should be one in downtown Woodland.鈥

With the new paper, Chin, a longtime Chicago Cafe customer partial to its 鈥淐hicago combination鈥 plate, wants to get the word out about the cafe鈥檚 significance, so one day it will be mentioned in the same breath as Pekin Noodle Parlor or Sam Wo. He said he also hopes the research paper grabs the attention of potential new Chicago Cafe owners, because Paul and Nancy Fong could retire any day now. 

鈥淚 think it is something an entrepreneur interested in Chinese cuisine and Asian American history could really make their own,鈥 Chin said. He envisions an established restaurateur turning the diner 鈥 already so inherently, distinctively cool 鈥 into a destination for 鈥渇oodies鈥 from Northern California and beyond. 

No matter what happens with the restaurant space, the Fongs鈥 absence would be sorely felt in Woodland. 

鈥淓very time they close down and go on vacation, they are just swamped when they open again,鈥 Amy Fong said. 鈥淧eople will Facebook Messenger me and say, 鈥楬ey, we notice that your dad and mom are closed. Are they OK?鈥 

鈥淚 think the big niche that we have with our customers is that the roots have been so deep.鈥&苍产蝉辫; 鈥   鈥

A Chinese restaurant steeped in California history

On this September day, Paul Fong moved between kitchen and dining room, chatting with regulars like David Shaffer, 59, who sat at the counter eating pork noodles. Shaffer said he first visited the cafe as a child with his uncle; he likes how the Fongs serve 鈥渢he old type of Chinese food.鈥&苍产蝉辫; 

Wes Hensley, the lifelong customer, noted that 鈥渙ne of the cool things鈥 about entering through the cafe鈥檚 kitchen is seeing Paul and Nancy make everything fresh. This extends to American offerings like a hot sandwich prepared from whole turkeys roasted in house, and breakfast items available all day. 

Most other Chinese food in town is 鈥渓ike fast food,鈥 Hensley said.

1917 menu from Chicago Caf茅
1917 menu from Chicago Cafe

Chicago Cafe鈥檚 鈥渙ld type鈥 of Chinese food, with its various iterations of egg foo young and chow mein laden with bean sprouts, is a specific type developed to appeal to American tastes in the early to mid-20th century. The cafe鈥檚 menu has barely changed since the 1950s, Andy Fong said. 

This tracks with research conducted by Ben Ruilin Fong, a 澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图 comparative literature Ph.D. candidate and member of Chin鈥檚 research team. For his Ph.D., Fong has studied 澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图鈥 vast collection of English-language Chinese cookbooks and, with funding from the 澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图 Humanities Institute, collected oral histories in San Francisco鈥檚 Chinatown. He also interviewed Andy Fong for the Chicago Cafe project.

鈥淭here is just so much interesting and compelling overlap with what was going on in San Francisco鈥檚 Chinatown during the 1960s and the story of the Chicago Cafe,鈥 Ben Fong said. For instance, most Chinatown residents who immigrated before 1980 came from Guangdong鈥檚 small Taishan region, like Chicago Cafe鈥檚 owners. Landing in Woodland rather than San Francisco might have played a role in the Fongs鈥 business longevity, he said.

Not only is competition far more intense in San Francisco, but 鈥渢he city has a long history of tearing things down and inserting itself into communities, which could disrupt a restaurant鈥檚 existence,鈥 Ben Fong said. But in Woodland, the Fongs鈥 restaurant 鈥渃reated this kind of positive feedback loop, where people have a familiarity with Chicago Cafe, and have been going there for big periods of their lives, so it makes sense to keep going there. It is not as uncertain or as hectic as San Francisco鈥檚 Chinatown feels sometimes.鈥濃

Embracing Chinese-American identity 

Chicago Cafe has roasted whole turkeys for at least 63 years, according to a 1960 Oakland Tribune column unearthed by Chin鈥檚 research. It reported on a cheeky turkey thief who absconded with a just-cooked bird from the Chicago Cafe鈥檚 kitchen, only to later return the now-meatless bones with a thank-you note. 

Other vintage newspaper reports and ads were less lighthearted, and less apocryphal. In 1910, the Daily Democrat editorialized that every Chinese or Japanese person hired for agricultural work 鈥渄rove a white man out of the orchard.鈥 A 1919 ad for the Woodland Steam Laundry boasted of employing 鈥渨hite help only.鈥&苍产蝉辫;

Andy Fong said he never heard his father or grandparents discuss facing particular challenges doing business as Asian Americans in primarily white and Latino Woodland.

鈥淲e didn鈥檛 have a lot of those philosophical or societal kind of discussions,鈥 he said. 鈥淚 have definitely had it with my friends 鈥 But with my parents, that never came up.鈥&苍产蝉辫;

A man stands next to a historical plaque
A plaque on Dead Cat Alley in Woodland, California, pays homage to its former China Town, including the home of the Fong family. (Jose Alfonso Perez/澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图)

U.S. Census figures place Woodland鈥檚 current Asian American population at 8.5%. But there were 鈥渓ess than a handful鈥 of families in town when he grew up, Andy said. A few also were restaurateurs named Fong. At least one was related. He called them all 鈥渦ncle鈥 regardless. 

Those other restaurants are gone now, but his parents鈥 place still closes on Thursdays, a throwback to when the town鈥檚 Chinese restaurants alternated days off so no Woodlander had to go a day without chow mein. Those other restaurateurs often spent days off in the Chicago Cafe鈥檚 kitchen, drinking tea and gabbing with the owners. 

Growing up in this atmosphere 鈥渒ind of immersed me in the heritage and the culture,鈥 Amy Fong said, especially when her 鈥渧ery, very traditional鈥 grandparents still ran the cafe. In high school, she won praise for writing assignments focused on being Chinese. 

It took Andy a bit longer to fully embrace his Chinese American identity. 

鈥淭here was a period where I was like, 鈥極h, I wish I didn鈥檛 have to go to the restaurant after school,鈥欌 he said. 鈥淚t wasn鈥檛 the same as my classmates.  鈥 There were times I felt like the oddball out because I didn鈥檛 have Asian friends.鈥 And schoolmates sometimes jokingly called him 鈥淏ruce Lee.鈥&苍产蝉辫; 

Once he left Woodland for college at San Jose State, he met more Asian Americans and gained perspective, Andy said.

He since has visited Taishan twice and become involved with the Friends of Roots nonprofit, which he said helps 鈥減eople who, unlike me, were several generations away鈥 from China to connect with their ancestral homes. 

He now fully 鈥渦nderstands how special our restaurant was, and is,鈥 Andy said. 鈥淚t is part of American history, right? Chinese American history is American history. And it still is that kind of historical place that can be witnessed right now.鈥&苍产蝉辫;

Not just witnessed, but touched and tasted, on any day of the week except Thursday. 

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