Tea 'n' Bowl has been a Clifton Heights staple for 15 years. The restaurant is a mainstay in the university neighborhood, serving bubble tea and noodles to hungry University of Cincinnati students and authentic Malaysian dishes from owner Yvonne Chew's home country. But the pandemic’s capacity rules hit this tiny restaurant hard. With student traffic nearly non-existent, Chew had to find other options.
“I just literally don’t know what else I would do,” Chew says. “This is my home."
Discouraged but undeterred, Chew has mastered the art of the entrepreneurial side hustle. Tea 'n' Bowl is now available on all the delivery platforms, but the apps' merchant fees cut into the restaurant's already slim profit margins. To compensate, Chew has added a selection of Malaysian groceries and handicrafts, which now decorate the bar once occupied by satisfied slurpers of curry laksa and duck soup. They have also experimented with small plates, ghost kitchens and holiday specials.
Chew and her husband bought the storefront at 211 W. McMillan St. in 2006 and wondered if an Asian bakery could flourish in Clifton. Instead, they took a safer route: a restaurant with some tried-and-true staples like bubble tea and ramen. They were right to do so, as evident by the “Best of Cincinnati” plaques lining the walls and the Yelp reviews singing their praises.
But the idea of the bakery lingered, and the pandemic presented an opportunity to try something new.
Just last month, Tea 'n' Bowl launched Mookie Cookie, a line of handcrafted sweet and savory pastries with authentic Malaysian recipes. Mookie Cookie was born of that long-held dream of running a bakery.
Chew uses recipes she remembers from her home and includes ingredients that tell Malaysia's complex and storied history of trade and colonialism.
The parmesan cookies are particularly surprising to anyone unaccustomed to the nuances of Malay cuisine. The Dutch colonial influence on Indonesian and Malaysian pastry persists — it’s not uncommon to see gouda and parmesan added to sweets. The result is sublime, especially when this sweet and salty cookie is paired with homemade pineapple jam. When asked if parmesan is a common ingredient in Malaysia, Chew says simply, “Sometimes, but it’s expensive back home.” She was delighted that the ingredient is so readily available here in the states.
Chew sees tea and cookies as a natural pairing and hopes customers will grab a few packages from Tea 'n' Bowl to enjoy with their award-winning boba.
At this point, every dollar spent at Tea 'n' Bowl helps the family business stay afloat.
In a Facebook post on April 5, the restaurant reported multiple incidents of people ordering large amounts of food without coming to pick it up and refusing to pay.
When asked about anti-Asian sentiment (this was prior the April 5 post), Chew nods in familiarity, indicating that this is not a new phenomenon for them. She fends off the comments and racist jokes with humor. “People sometimes call us and ask if we serve dog,” she says, eyes rolling. “I say, 'No, we serve dragon' and that shuts them up.”
Recently, we received a lot of huge order in the restaurant, but the sad thing is those order never get picked up. We...Posted by Tea 'n' Bowl on Monday, April 5, 2021
Thankfully, supporters of Tea 'n' Bowl run wide and deep.
After Chew's post went locally viral, the restaurant received so many orders that they "ran out of a lot of food items" and had to close to restock, according to Facebook.
On Saturdays, Tea 'n' Bowl hosts Malaysian Night. A few regular families come by to enjoy a familiar feast. Kids can be found jumping for joy over pancakes stuffed with pork and egg and exchanging smiles with Chew’s own pre-teen children, who are often posted at the back table working on homework and checking their iPads.
A family business in the truest sense, Chew raised her kids in the restaurant. Her husband is the head chef. But the aesthetic is anything but provincial, and college students find themselves equally at home as local Malaysian families. Lucky cat figurines pose against plastic moss walls, and clothes-pinned Polaroids of happy customers are draped next to fairy lights. It’s clear that Chew has given a lot of thought to her audience and customer base and worked hard to appeal to them all.
Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic has put this carefully crafted dining experience in jeopardy. Even with the side businesses, Chew worries about the future of the restaurant her family worked so hard to build. Mookie Cookie is only one of Tea 'n' Bowl’s creative approaches to survival. If successful, the venture might well be a blessing that emerges from pandemic challenges. Regardless, Chew’s passion and pride in her culinary heritage will hopefully guarantee Tea 'n' Bowl a lasting place in Cincinnati’s Asian restaurant scene.
Tea 'n' Bowl is located at 211 W. McMillan St., Clifton Heights/CUF. For more info about the restaurant and Mookie Cookie, visit facebook.com/teanbowl.
This story was originally published by Asianati, which celebrates Asian food culture through stories, news and a directory of Asian restaurants, food trucks, markets, bakeries, and more. It was republished here with permission.