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The Cooking Life

Saved By Bubble Tea

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When James Tai and his business partner Jennifer Au became part owners of Szechwan Kitchen in Lincoln Park back in 1988, they borrowed recipes from the now defunct Suzie Wong on Armitage, where both had worked as waiters. "We offered the typical stuff--kung pao chicken, Szechwan eggplant--traditional Chinese dishes for Americans who don't want to try new things," he recalls. Business was average--hampered, he says, by lack of parking. After five years the pair sold the restaurant and set their sights on a location further north, close to Northwestern college students.

They stuck to "generic items like chop suey and egg foo young" at their new place, Joy Yee's, Tai says. Its location, west of the el tracks on Church in Evanston, was out of the way, and Tai and Au struggled to make a profit. By then the two longtime friends--both first-generation Cantonese-Americans who grew up in Bridgeport--had settled on a division of labor: Au supervised the menu and kitchen staff, while Tai, who had majored in accounting at DePaul, took care of the finances and day-to-day operations.

Their next opportunity came with the opening of Chinatown Square, the shopping mall at Archer and Cermak. They became one of the first tenants in 1996, opening Joy Yee's Noodle Shop in one of the mall's small storefronts. "Designing the menu was tough," says Tai, "because Asian customers demand some authenticity." Au kept only some of the Americanized standards and gradually introduced Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and even Japanese dishes. "We, in effect, became pan-Asian," says Tai. "Thanks to Jennifer, who is a great imitator. She can try out a dish, figure out its ingredients, experiment with the recipe, then come up with her own version."

Au's Korean BBQ short ribs, for example, are less garlicky and sweeter than what native Koreans are accustomed to, and they're spiked with ginger. Her takes on the Vietnamese soup pho don't come with tons of basil and hot peppers. Both are best-sellers on a menu that boasts over 70 dishes (lots of variations on a few themes, admits Tai), only a dozen or so of which are priced above $10.

The Chinatown Joy Yee's--both places are named after Tai's daughter--prospered for about six months, attracting a mostly young Asian crowd who wanted home cooking and didn't mind the minimal decor. As more restaurants opened in the mall, however, some of its regulars were lured away. That's when bubble tea came to the rescue.

Au had discovered bubble tea on her trips to Hong Kong, where the craze had spread from Taipei. The drink, made of sugar, tea, ice, and chewy tapioca pearls, was the biggest teen fad to hit east Asia since karaoke. The Chinese name, baoba cha, alludes to the female breast (the tapioca balls resemble nipples); when transliterated into English, "baoba" becomes "bubble."

When Au put bubble tea on the menu in early '98 it was an instant success, especially with Asian college kids who'd known about the drink from their friends in California and New York, where it was already popular. Au also served a variation made with fruit juice instead of tea. "We were among the first in Chicago to serve it," Tai says. "And from the very start we insisted on using fresh fruits and not powdered concentrates."

Au steadily added more varieties--expanding the selections to include exotic fruit flavors like litchi and jackfruit, as well as tapioca-free freezes--until the menu grew to about 100 choices, each served in a jumbo glass and costing no more than four bucks. With its late hours, Joy Yee's soon became a favorite hangout for UIC students. "I have to buy 150 cases of mango and papaya every week to satisfy demand, and we fly in by the pound tapioca from Taiwan and California," says Tai. A couple of years ago the 45-seat space was redecorated, and its colorful new look--with shelves of tropical fruits behind the bubble-tea bar and Canto-rap video looping on a monitor--has drawn a brisk business. A typical Saturday brings in over 400 orders for food, most including requests for bubble tea. So Tai and Au's decision to transplant the formula to Evanston was a no-brainer.

Tai knew late last year that the Evanston building they inhabited was scheduled to be demolished. "We were glad to move, because we didn't get much foot traffic there," he says. He found a sizable storefront on Davis and set out to remodel it. In late September, the new Joy Yee's opened, sporting the sister restaurant's same cheerful look and a menu that's almost as large, prefaced with Polaroids of selected dishes. The 70 seats have seldom been empty during dinner hours, and just about every customer orders bubble tea. Tai can hardly contain his relief. "Looks like we're at the right place and the right time with the right menu," he says.

Joy Yee's Noodles is at 521 Davis in Evanston, 847-733-1900; Joy Yee's Noodle Shop in Chinatown is at 2159 Chinatown Square, 312-328-0001.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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