Two women are on a mission to preserve the culinary contributions of Asian Americans in North Texas

▲ Denise Johnson (left) and Stephanie Drenka are piecing together the history of Asian restaurants in North Texas by relying on shreds of clues like old matchboxes and menus found on Ebay. (Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

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.

▲ Menus and matchboxes archived by Denise Johnson and Stephanie Drenka, who recently founded the Dallas Asian American Historical Society and are digging into the history of Asian restaurants in North Texas, photographed at the Dallas Morning News studio.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

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.

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The quest to uncover the history of Dallas’ Asian restaurants, one matchbox at a time