Jenny Chin’s dumplings are nothing like the dumplings that you might usually order to fill a late-night craving for Asian food. Take her pork and chive. The steaming wrapper of each dumpling, which is just thin enough to be unobtrusive—not gumming up the eater’s mouth with starch—and just thick enough to give it body, before quickly giving way to an exceptionally juicy filling. Instead of being chalky and bland, the dense and flavorful pork and chive mixture explodes into your mouth before melting onto your tongue. The pan seared bottom of the dumpling leaves you with a final crunch, and the desire to dive back into your generous plate and finish off the rest.
So, it makes sense that these dumplings inspired Bess Lee to take a new journey and open her eponymous eatery, Bess’s Cafe. After softly opening to the public about a month ago, Bess’s Cafe is just two stops down the D line, cozily nestled in Brookline Hills. It was after finding this perfect space, which originally housed Brick Wall Kitchen, that Lee decided to finally make the leap, and open a cafe of her very own.
After moving to Boston from Hong Kong with her family 28 years ago, Lee worked as a personal shopper in retail for over two decades. But for Lee, it was time “to change and have a new adventure.” She began toying with the idea of opening her own shop, maybe a one focused on makeup, or a boutique curating the high fashion that she knew so well. When Lee found the Brookline space last January, however, the desire to open her own restaurant crystallized, and she immediately turned to Chin, one of her best friends.
After meeting Chin through mutual friends over 20 years ago, the two women instantly clicked, and Lee frequented Chin’s table for dinner. Jenny’s homemade dumplings were some of the best that Lee had ever had, so when the concept for Bess’s Cafe took shape, Lee turned to Chin, asking her to step in as the cafe’s executive chef.
Together, the two women built the menu using recipes that came from Chin’s mother and grandmothers. With Jenny’s dumplings as a starting point, they focused on “simple, healthy, Asian small dishes,” and worked to source ingredients that met their standards for taste and quality. They wanted to keep everything delicious, but also healthy—a quality that Lee noted can sometimes be hard to find in Boston-area Asian restaurants.
“Asian food out there, some is really good, but some is junk,” Lee said. “We eat [the cafe’s food] too. I’m here every day, [and] I eat here [all day].”
Lee also worked to transform the restaurant space itself, keeping the décor straightforward and clean. The light-green walls and minimalist-black tables provide a vibrant atmosphere, and allow visitors to focus on the focal point of the cafe: an exposed brick wall that Lee has filled with her own mother’s traditional brush paintings.
Big, storefront windows also fill the space with light, making the restaurant open and bright, while inviting curious passersby to peek in and explore the new addition to the area. But be warned. After peeking in and getting a whiff of the herbs in the dumplings as they steam away, or of the spices in a hearty broth being prepared in the back, stepping back out without taking a taste will be close to impossible.
As people averse to long, complex menus, Lee and Chin kept the menu short, and filled it with “easy, simple food.” After perfecting the selection of dumplings—which range from the aforementioned pork and chive, to succulent chicken dumplings coated in a bright and spicy Sichuan sauce—the duo curated a selection of wraps, flaky scallion pancakes filled with beef or chicken, and buns. The buns feature a pillowy, steamed bread encasing fillings like beef and pork belly. Topped with finely chopped cucumbers and one of Jenny’s homemade sauces, the buns are umami rich, and still refreshing from the vegetables.
Diners looking for a bigger meal might head for the noodles and soups after their dumplings. The rich and spicy Dan Dan noodles are already a crowd favorite, and Lee explained that they are nut-free in order to make the dish accessible to everyone.
Lee’s attention to her customers is obvious from the moment that one steps into the cafe. Happily chatting with anyone new, and excitedly greeting an already growing groups of regulars, Lee is eager for their feedback. She has already added a range of vegetarian options (dumplings, noodles, and appetizers) to the menu for the community’s meat-free inhabitants, and is happy to introduce any diner to a new dish.
For those with a sweet tooth, this new dish might take the form of the delicious “Sweet Sticky Rice Pudding,” which combines beans, barley, seaweed, and fruit in a sweet, plum-colored sauce. And while the dish might seem unusual to some customers, for others it might provide a taste of home.
“[We also opened the cafe so] that people can taste real Asian food and not have to travel back home,” Lee said. “It will be good for students too. I think that some overseas students might be homesick.”
In fact, Lee has already gotten comments of surprise from some visitors who are shocked by the flavors that Jenny has been able to create and replicate. And that’s the point to Lee—creating the flavors of home and spreading them to the community around her.
For Lee, Bess’s Cafe is “a family business.” But with each customer who steps into the restaurant, it looks like that family will be growing larger and larger.
Featured Image by Madeleine D’Angelo / Heights Editor