Jenn Lay spent a long time working for the man, but now – having recently opened Yey’s Cafe to serve her wildly popular Cambodian food – she’s living the dream.
On my recent visit to the newly-opened University Heights restaurant, Lay said she was inspired by both her family’s unique story and strong support from the local community to get out of Cubicle Hell, working for a large multi-national bank.
Forced out of Cambodia by war and genocide under the Khmer Rouge, Lay’s family raised her in Rochester after immigrating to the United States in the early 80s. On the Yey’s Facebook page, Lay wrote about how her grandmother, or ‘yey’ in Cambodian, “brought us all together, keeping a piece of (her family’s) homeland alive in their heart, by the best way she knew how… through her cooking.”
When Jenn came to Buffalo for college a few years ago, she discovered the diversity and support we often take for granted here in the City of Good Neighbors.
“All the people I’ve come across have been so welcoming or they’ve heard my family’s story and said, ‘Oh that’s great; you need to share that with people’. And I was like, ‘Oh I just thought I was a normal person, and everybody just has some crazy story about their family!’
“It just got to me, and got my wheels turning,” she said.
Sick of working her day job and inspired by her family’s rich culinary history, Lay started doing pop-ups and catering events, eventually forming a tight bond with the Dnipro Ukrainian Cultural Center and working out of their kitchen. People visiting the center quickly started to take notice of the regular Yey’s pop-up events held there.
“They were like, ‘What? Cambodian food in a Ukrainian hall?” she mused. “But they loved it, and started to get really excited about Cambodian Night.”
Based on the food I sampled, it’s easy to see why they got so excited. Cambodian cuisine, I was told, is similar to Vietnamese cuisine and is known for its use of kroeung paste, a spice blend that typically includes lemongrass, lime zest, lime leaves, turmeric, garlic, shallots and dried red chillies. It infuses almost every dish at Yey’s, even the many vegan options.
When used on Yey’s chicken wings, the effect of kroeung paste is mind-expanding: the flavors come at you in waves of heat, citrus, earthiness, salt and sweetness. They’re the most complex wings I’ve ever had, but they still look and feel like our old friend, the classic chicken wing. I picked at these bones like a desert vulture in the hot sun. These are wings 2.0, friends.
I also sampled num pang, a Cambodian version of the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, but made with marinated beef. A crusty baguette from the Mama Rose bakery in Tonawanda held bright flavors, charred, pungent meat and crunchy veggies, which offered a smart textural contrast.
In addition to these items, you can also “build your own” bowl of rice, noodles or greens, topped with meat or vegan alternatives through a style of service that should be pretty familiar.
“Since I’m the only Cambodian restaurant in Buffalo and there’s a lot of people who are unfamiliar with Cambodia or don’t even know what Cambodia is,” Lay explained, “I definitely wanted to make it easy to order, which is why I set it up Chipotle-style, where you can build your own bowl.”
While there is no liquor license, Yey’s does have nitro cold brew on tap and Cambodian iced coffee. There are also Cambodian desserts like tapioca rice pudding and fried plantains. If you were a fan of the chicken wing and mac-n-cheese egg rolls at Yey’s pop-up event, they should make an appearance soon, but egg rolls probably won’t be a big menu focus.
There’s more going on at Yey’s than just great food. The decor is rustic and cozy. A gorgeous Chuck Tingley mural is splayed across one wall. Everyone from Yey’s long-time super fans to new customers should expect personalized hospitality and communal vibes.
“During the pop-ups I wasn’t really able to talk to anyone because I was always cooking,” Lay said. “But here, I’m able to cook, bring it out, talk to people and engage with them.”
That’s if you want to be engaged. With food this good, it might be hard to tear your attention away from what’s in front of you.
3225 Main Street, Buffalo, NY 14214
Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday 2 p.m. – 8 p.m., Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 2 p.m – 8 p.m., Saturday 12 p.m. – 8 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.