In 2017, Layla Chen took over a storefront on Bed-Stuy’s Gates Avenue. At the time, it was a turnkey operation: She kept the name Bed-Stuy Provisions, with the same “farm-to-table” sandwich recipes from the general store’s original owners. Chen, who formerly worked in operations at Adidas, had never run a restaurant before and wanted to learn the ropes slow and steady, by testing things out in a spot that had already had a neighborhood following.
A year in, she began to transition the space into what’s now called Maya Congee Cafe, pivoting to focus on modern interpretations of congee. In addition, she stocks provisions like chile oil and Maggi, which speak more to her growing up in Guangzhou, China, followed by Hawaii, where she spent time around her father’s restaurants.
Taking the risk on her first-time operation paid off: Just a few years later, Maya Congee Cafe is debuting a second, bigger location at 1013 Fulton Street, near Grand Avenue, in Clinton Hill. It opens today, Tuesday, November 1.
The idea for the business came from wanting to create simple but nutritious fare that staff could make without the guidance of an official chef. The model would allow for her to oversee it while tending to 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 has been fruitful in other ways: Prior to opening the new location, she had a second child, Milan, with her now-husband whom she met when he was a customer at the original Maya Congee Cafe.)
The Clinton Hill location of Maya Congee Cafe has 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 prepared with mostly white rice as well as a mix of quinoa and brown rice.
Though the neighborhood has largely shown up for her (Maya Congee Cafe, already well-equipped for delivery, only expanded its business during the pandemic) she says especially when she first opened, she received some negative reviews from Asian customers who felt that her recipes were, in her words, “whitewashing” congee as they knew it. This was heartbreaking to Chen, who wanted to bring East Asian fast casual food to an area of Brooklyn where the 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 City. She says she and her mom have recently bonded over adding more texture to their congee, though her mom prefers to add millet.
Over the years, though, she has made it her mission to stay true to her experience as a first-generation Chinese American, and no matter what some might feel, she knows she’s offering an environment “unlike any other in the area.”
As for what’s available, there’s braised chicken congee with shaved broccoli and seasonal vegetables, vegan congee with salted peanuts, sambal, shaved 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, now of 7 Grain Army, originally consulted for the menu when the first location opened, but he is not involved in the expansion.)
Bowls are intended to be super customizable with add-ons like eggs, avocado, or whitefish. Notably, customers can add a preserved duck egg, sometimes called the century egg or 1,000-year egg, which has become a Maya Congee Cafe signature. Though Chen outsources its production to a purveyor, the preserved egg is one of the more unique items on the menu, cured in lime and ash, with an almost goth-like gelatinous look, and a completely different taste from, say, soy sauce-marinated eggs. Chen says it was a favorite of her childhood and she’s excited to give a platform for it at her cafes.
In addition to congee, Maya offers sandwiches, some vegetarian and vegan-friendly, especially important to her. In the mornings, the cafe will serve coffee and pastries. She dreams of collaborating with an old-school Chinatown bakery on wholesale, but she says she’s still figuring out what’s possible.
The cafe doubles as a general store selling pantry staples largely by AAPI creators, like sauce starter packs from Omsom and Fly By Jing products, in addition to coffee by Variety roasters and Oatly oat milk. She’s especially proud to offer Koda Farms rice flour that she says can be used for things like making mochi.
Currently, Maya Congee Cafe Bed-Stuy is only operating for to-go, or outside seating. Maya Congee Cafe Clinton Hill will operate with plenty of inside seating — and a rare spot that caters to work-from-home folks where laptops are welcome. It is also the first time Maya Congee Cafe will serve liquor — at least as soon as Chen’s license is approved — which will be a mix of beer and wine by tap.
Maya Congee Cafe Clinton Hill is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day.