When Dallas was still a town of muddy, unpaved roads and cotton fields, a Chinese entrepreneur by the name of Joe Hay opened Star Restaurant on Main Street. It was the first Chinese restaurant and likely the first Asian restaurant to open in the city, and it came at a time when ethnic discrimination hit a fever pitch as anti-Chinese sentiments were codified into law.
A decade before Hay opened his restaurant, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was enacted, making it the first major piece of legislation to broadly restrict immigration in the country. It suspended Chinese immigration into the United States, but people like Hay, who were born in the United States or immigrated from China prior to the exclusion act, maintained their cultural influence.
Hay, who many knew as Jim Wing, served traditional Chinese food in his downtown Dallas restaurant, but he also advertised chop suey and “American dishes” to appeal to the masses. He went on to open two more restaurants during his career and became recognized as a “prominent” figure “known to thousands of Dallas residents as one who never turned away a hungry man,” according to his 1933 obituary in The Dallas Morning News.
Now, more than a century after Hay first brought Chinese restaurants to Dallas, two women are unearthing and piecing together his story and the stories of the many Asian restaurateurs after him who fundamentally shaped the way Dallas eats today.
Their archival project is part of the broader work Stephanie Drenka and Denise Johnson are doing through the Dallas Asian American Historical Society, which they co-founded in early 2022 as a response to the rise in anti-Asian discrimination in the wake of the pandemic.
“It was something we realized nobody else was doing, and it was the one thing we thought could have a long-term impact in reducing discrimination and racism against Asians,” Drenka says.
Johnson and Drenka are in the process of filming a documentary series called Thank You Come Again (a nod to the common takeout bag slogan), which is a collection of interviews with North Texas Asian American restaurateurs to highlight their contributions to the dining scene. They want to document the stories of these business owners before they are lost in time like the stories of many Asian restauranteurs who came after Hay. They’re also looking to secure historical markers for the spaces that once housed some of the city’s first Asian-owned businesses.
“We want Asian American restaurant owners and business owners to know that their work is historic and how it fits into the bigger picture,” Drenka says.
Uncovering the history of Asian Americans in North Texas, especially the history of bygone restaurants, has proven to be an arduous undertaking. Much of the history of Asian restaurants and their owners was never documented or preserved, so Drenka and Johnson rely on shreds of clues like old restaurant matchboxes and menus found by scouring Ebay when newspaper records run dry. Those items are some of the only remaining fragments of many of the Asian restaurants that used to feed Dallas.
The stories Drenka and Johnson have dug up so far, like that of Joe Hay, reveal a local Asian food history far deeper than most people are aware of. April Kao, owner of Royal China, one of Dallas’ oldest currently operating Asian restaurants, was shocked to learn when Dallas’ first Asian restaurant opened.
“I had no idea it was that long ago,” she says. “I’m not surprised though, because there were Asian men in the Army service and also the Chinese helped build the railroad at that time.”
In recent decades, and certainly during Hay’s time, the Western gaze commonly lumped all Asian cuisines under a generic understanding of Chinese food. Restaurateurs catered heavily to Westerners’ taste buds and expectations as a means of survival. That’s changed now, and people are better educated on the breadth of Asian culinary traditions, Kao says.
At Royal China, which was opened by Kao’s father-in-law, Buck Shu-Chang Kao, in 1974, diners are subtly educated on the intricacies and technicalities of regional Chinese cooking by its open concept dumpling bar, where dough is rolled, stretched and skillfully transformed into hand-cut noodles and delicate dumplings. Kao said it was one of the first restaurants of its kind to bring that experience to diners, and it was an instant hit.
Social media has also played a significant role in educating diners on the expanse of Asian cuisines and the culinary contributions of Asian Americans, says Vu Ly, co-founder of the highly popular Facebook group Asian Grub in DFDub. The group, which has more than 50,000 followers, was started in March 2020 to combat anti-Asian rhetoric and is dedicated to sharing and supporting Asian-owned restaurants in North Texas. It also provides assurance that the stories of new generations of North Texas’ Asian restaurants will not be lost.
“The group brings awareness to the fact that you can support your community no matter what race they are,” Ly says.
Just in the past decade, the Asian food scene in North Texas has exploded with restaurants that represent hyper-regional cuisines, many of which are run by younger generations. There is Okaeri Cafe in Richardson, which serves Japanese street foods at coveted zashiki-style tables. There’s Krio in Bishop Arts, an Asian Cajun restaurant “where The Far East meets the Deep South.” In Haltom City there is Lao and Thai restaurant Asiannights and Koryo Korean BBQ is one of dozens of restaurants in Dallas’ Koreatown. Vietnamese cuisine is spotlighted at Quoc Bao bakery in Garland, Sandwich Hag in Dallas’ Cedars neighborhood, and Saigon Block in Richardson.
“The younger generation has come in and put their own twist on the cuisine,” Ly says. “There are one to two new Asian restaurants opening up every month or so.”
Although much has changed since Hay opened his restaurant in the 19th century, the racism and xenophobia he lived amongst still linger. At times it feels as though nothing has changed, but there are earmarks of progress, Ly says.
“Social media helps bring awareness to stopping Asian hate. It’s still there, but I think we’re progressing slowly,” he says. “Food is another language that people can use to communicate with each other. It brings people together.”
Drenka likes to think about what Hay would make of the Dallas he knew versus Dallas today, with its expansive suburbs that have become enclaves of Asian culture and culinary preservation and innovation.
“I feel like his mind would be blown at how many specialized Asian restaurants there are now that focus on specific cultures and foods,” she says.