In 2017, Layla Chen took over a storefront on Bed-Stuy’s Gates Avenue. At the time, it was a turnkey operation: it retained the Bed-Stuy Provisions name, with the same farm-to-table sandwich recipes of the general store’s first owners. Chen, who previously worked in operations at Adidas, had never run a restaurant before and wanted to learn the ropes slowly and steadily, trying things out in a place that once had a neighborhood.
A year later, she began transforming the space into what is now called the Maya Congee Cafe, focusing on modern interpretations of congee. Plus, she stocks up on groceries like chili oil and Maggi, which speak more to her childhood in Guangzhou, China, and then Hawaii, where she spent time at her father’s restaurants.
Taking the risk of its first operation paid off: a few years later, Maya Congee Cafe opened a second, larger location at 1013 Fulton Street off Grand Avenue in Clinton Hill. It opens today, Tuesday November 1st.
The idea for the company came from a desire to create simple but nutritious dishes that staff could prepare without guidance from a formal chef. The model would allow her to supervise him while taking on the responsibilities of motherhood. Maya is named after her incredibly cute five-year-old daughter, who has become something of a mascot for customers. (The business was successful in other ways: Before opening the new location, she had a second child, Milan, with her husband, whom she met when he was a customer at the first Maya Congee Cafe.)
Maya Congee Cafe’s Clinton Hill location offers essentially the same menu as its Bed-Stuy sibling, but don’t expect traditional congee at either outpost. Maya Congee Cafe’s congee base is made with mostly white rice as well as a mix of quinoa and brown rice.
Although the neighborhood has largely come forward for her (Maya Congee Cafe, already well equipped for delivery, only expanded its business during the pandemic), she says, especially when it opened, it received negative reviews. of Asian customers who felt that his recipes were, in his words, the “bleaching” of congee as they knew it. It was heartbreaking for Chen, who wanted to bring East Asian fast-casual food to a Brooklyn neighborhood where cuisine was rarely featured. Her menu is authentic to the meals she grew up with, remixed with what she eats as an adult living in New York. She says she and her mom recently bonded over adding more texture to their congee, although her mom prefers to add millet.
Over the years, however, she’s made it her mission to stay true to her experience as a first-generation Chinese-American, and no matter how some might feel, she knows she provides an environment “not like others in the area.
As for what’s available, there’s braised chicken congee with shredded broccoli and seasonal vegetables, vegan congee with salted peanuts, sambal, shredded broccoli and seasonal vegetables, as well as a version with pork cooked in ginger, garlic and jalapenos. (Matthew Tilden, formerly of Bed-Stuy’s SCRATCHbread, originally consulted for the menu when opening the first location, but he’s not involved in the expansion.)
The bowls are meant to be super customizable with add-ons like eggs, avocado, or whitefish. Notably, customers can add a canned duck egg, sometimes referred to as a century egg or a 1,000 year old egg, which has become a Maya Congee Cafe signature. Although Chen outsources its production to a supplier, the canned egg is one of the most unique items on the menu, treated with lime and ash, with an almost gothic gelatinous appearance and a taste completely different from , say, soy sauce. pickled eggs. Chen says it was one of her childhood favorites and she is thrilled to give it a stage in her cafes.
In addition to congee, Maya offers sandwiches, some vegetarian and vegan, which are particularly important to her. In the morning, the cafe will serve coffee and pastries. She dreams of collaborating with an old-school bakery in Chinatown on wholesale, but she says she’s always looking for what’s possible.
The cafe also serves as a general store selling pantry staples largely by AAPI creators, such as sauce starter packs from Omsom and Fly By Jing products, in addition to coffee from Variety roasters and dairy milk. oatly oats. She is especially proud to offer Koda Farms rice flour which she says can be used for things like making mochi.
Currently, Maya Congee Cafe Bed-Stuy is only operating for take-out or outdoor seating. Maya Congee Cafe Clinton Hill will operate with plenty of indoor seating – and a rare spot that caters to people working from home where laptops are welcome. This is also the first time that Maya Congee Cafe will serve alcohol – at least as soon as Chen’s license is approved – which will be a mix of draft beer and wine.
The Maya Congee Cafe Clinton Hill is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.