Not Gonna Let This Cookie Crumble
Tea n Bowl in Clifton takes a creative approach to overcoming pandemic challenges
[editor's note: We conducted this interview with Ms Chew before recent events where Tea n Bowl was targeted for harassment over the course of a week. It breaks our hearts that this horrible behavior persists. We encourage you, friend of Asianati, to continue speaking out against all racist behavior whether it's coded language or "harmless" pranks. Racism and injustice persists only so long as we allow it. -JP]
“I just literally don’t know what else I would do,” says Yvonne Chew, owner of Tea n Bowl on McMillian. “This is my home”.
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 UC students and authentic Malaysian dishes from 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.
Yvonne Chew (Photo: JP Leong)
Discouraged but undeterred, Chew has mastered the art of the entrepreneurial side hustle. Tea n Bowl is available on all the delivery platforms but the fees cut into their already slim profit margins. To compensate, she 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 Street in 2006 and wondered if an Asian bakery could flourish here 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. So, 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 include 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 said 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 to enjoy with their award-winning boba.
And at this point, every dollar is helping this family business stay afloat. When asked if they’ve experienced any Anti-Asian sentiment, 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.”
Thankfully, supporters of Tea n Bowl run wide and deep. Saturday evening is 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.
Top Image: Collection of Mookie Cookie's latest offerings. Photo: JP Leong