Ray’s Café and Tea House, Philadelphia | Laurie Bernstein

from Gastronomica 7:2

At the edge of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, among a row of small stores selling fresh fortune cookies and Chinese herbs, sits an unobtrusive café where coffee costs upwards of $3.50 a cup. Ray’s Café and Tea House has room for only thirty customers. A white board advertises pan-fried or steamed dumplings and other Chinese specialties daily. Newspapers and magazines fan out along a narrow counter, behind which rises a chemist’s dream: a row of gleaming glass bowls with tubes perched above Bunsen burners. It is here that Ray’s owner, Grace Chen, works her magic. She methodically fills a siphon coffeemaker with water, grinds some freshly roasted beans, and adds the coffee to a filter that divides the tube from the bowl. Once the water boils, it rises up through the tube, and then Grace stirs the coffee with what looks like a wooden tongue depressor and removes the device from the flame. She lets the rich, dark liquid slowly drip back into the glass bowl. This entire process takes patience, but it’s well worth the wait. After approximately four minutes, Grace pours the coffee—now full bodied, smooth, and complex, without a hint of bitterness—into an exquisite porcelain cup and brings it to the table, accompanied by a tiny pitcher of cream and a miniature butter cookie.

Although Ray’s is primarily a coffeehouse, Grace Chen doesn’t neglect the other items on her menu, including various teas and desserts of green tea ice cream, fresh milkshakes, and excellent pastries from a Viennese bakery in nearby Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Her selection of Chinese dishes is unusual, with an emphasis on fresh, healthy items and specialties like Ray’s delicious handmade dumplings filled with pork, shrimp, or vegetables.

I recently spoke to Grace Chen about her café.

LB: Tell me about your dumplings. I can’t decide which are my favorite—the pork with napa cabbage, the shrimp, or the curry chicken.

GC: I love my dumplings. I loved dumplings when I was a child in Taiwan. I really enjoyed how my family—my mother and everybody—would get together to make the dough, the homemade skin, and then add the fillings. That was the happiest time because you needed to get everybody involved to make dumplings. After that, you would eat and talk, and then you would get full and happy. There’s not much else you need to do. Dumplings don’t involve too many pots and pans. All you need is a pan for frying and a pot for boiling the water. That’s it! Not like most cooking where you have so many pots and pans to wash.

My chef prepares the dough and fillings, but we all put the dumplings together because the work’s so labor intensive. I really enjoy making them because that’s part of the art. They’re handmade, and these days you rarely get anything that’s made by hand. Yet people still don’t buy enough dumplings. Maybe that’s because other local restaurants serve dim sum, and those dumplings cost less. I hope that someday I’ll sell so many that my pot will boil continuously, and my chef and kitchen helper will be able just to stand there and make dumplings to order. That’s how things are in Taiwan dumpling houses. If you order sixty, they make them and then put them in to boil or pan fry—right in front of you! Oh, how I hope that day will come! Yes, that’s how I think food should be. You go to a market for a fresh fish, you pick out the fish, the workers clean and cut the fish right in front of you, and then you take it home.

Photograph by Laurie Bernstein © 2007

LB: So if people don’t order enough dumplings, how do you decide what else to put on the menu?

GC: I only serve the foods that I myself enjoy. The way we cook is the way I like. There’s very little oil, and we use all-natural ingredients. Each different food has its own character and taste, so our preparation is designed to bring out the individual flavor of every dish. But some things that I like—such as Peking duck—I can’t provide. They’re too complicated, and my kitchen is just too small. Oyster pancakes were popular in Taiwan, but we can’t make them—there’s not enough business, and the oysters quickly spoil. Our chef prepares wonderful spring rolls—they’re crisp, thin skinned, and filled with fresh vegetables. We’re also known for what we call our Spicy Walnut Delight. This is a vegetarian dish featuring candied walnuts, ginger, and wheat gluten, which is typical in Taiwanese cuisine. Another specialty item is our spicy beef noodle broth. We stew the beef for up to three hours to get the flavor we want.

LB: You’re making me hungry! Now tell me about coffee traditions in Taiwan.

GC: Taiwan’s coffee traditions were influenced by Japan. In the 1970s and ’80s, we would only drink coffee in coffee shops. We didn’t prepare coffee at home—it was for social occasions. You’d go into a coffeehouse, and it would be cozy, comfortable, and nicely lit. They’d provide you with gourmet coffee, each cup made individually. It wasn’t like here in America, where you make big pots and everybody gets the same kind of coffee. It wasn’t machine made; each cup was prepared specially for the customer. People would go in there, drink some coffee, and have conversations about everything—their family, their business. But now things have changed. Now they make coffee at home and they have Starbucks. Now you see people in cafés who are working, checking e-mail, or reading.

LB: What did you envision for your own coffeehouse?

GC: I wanted to have a cozy place that provided a good cup of good quality—the way Ray’s is now. People may think that our coffee is expensive, but I don’t think it’s expensive. You pay for what you get. It’s of excellent quality, it takes time to prepare, and it’s beautifully presented. When customers walk in for the first time, most of them say, “Four dollars for a cup of coffee? Do we get the whole pot? Is it refillable?” They always ask that and I say, “No, it’s just one cup.” Only about 15 or 20 percent of people will actually try it. But when they do, they appreciate it.

LB: After I had my first cup here, I never questioned the price again. I’m sure that other customers feel the same way.

GC: This business is so difficult, but I’m thankful to the Lord that I’ve never given up. It’s been so hard to introduce my coffee! I’ve just had to stay confident that this is the way that coffee should be. My coffee’s not an everyday drink, but it’s there when you need it. Of course, I also serve drip coffee that runs from $1.25 to $2.50 a cup. I know that people who work around here need this kind of coffee, and they need it fast. People can get cheaper and bigger cups at McDonald’s or other fast-food places, but they come here because we have good coffee. Some come twice a day, and I’ve had customers who come in every single day.

LB: How do you decide on your special coffee blends?

GC: In Taiwan, each coffee shop has its own signature blends to attract customers. I knew that if I wanted to stand out, I needed to have my own blend, not just offer a cup of Sumatra, Brazilian Santos, or Colombia. You need to know the character of each individual bean and blend, just as you do with food. You know, everyone has their own recipe, even for brown-garlic sauce. Brown-garlic sauce is different in every restaurant. So I listened to my customers. They would tell me, “Your coffee isn’t strong enough,” or, “Your coffee doesn’t have enough body.” And so I work with them and change things.

I don’t roast my own beans, but I’ve created special blends. Our Philly Blend is our strongest coffee. It’s made from African and Indonesian beans. We also feature something called Sumiyaki. This is Japanese charcoal-roasted coffee with a full-bodied taste and mild acidity. People have compared it to fine wine.

LB: Are siphon coffeemakers also used in Taiwan?

GC: Yes, but only the very best coffee shops use them. They need a lot of patience and time. Plus, they’re breakable. So you need a person with good hands and experience. Customers tend to want the same person making their coffee every time.

LB: You’re also famous for your iced coffee. Could you tell me how it’s made in these giant siphons?

GC: Like the other coffeemakers, these are also Japanese. There’s no heat involved, and at one second for each drip, it takes some twelve hours to make a cup. The process is amazing—who would have thought you could make coffee without hot water? But the process caught my eye and grabbed my heart. I enjoy it so much, and the machine truly makes a great cup of coffee. The product is very strong, nothing like the traditional coffee that you let cool down and to which you add ice.

LB: Could you tell us something about how Ray’s came to be?

GC: I was a history major in a Taiwanese university when I came to this country in 1981 to marry the man who is now my ex-husband. He worked in a Chinese restaurant, and we lived in the suburbs. When I opened Ray’s seven years later, my children were still very little—my oldest son was seven, my other son was around two, and my daughter was just a year old. I opened in Chinatown because I thought that Americans weren’t ready for this kind of coffee shop. But as it turned out, most of the people in Chinatown weren’t from Taiwan, and they didn’t enjoy our coffee. Our business has really turned Chinatown upside down. The locals enjoy our Taiwanese rice noodles and dumplings, but they complain about our high prices.

LB: How have things changed over the years?

GC: Compared to how things were when I started seventeen years ago, I have fewer people working for me. I also have less energy, so I don’t do as much baking as I used to. And I spend so much time here! I leave my house at 7:30 in the morning and don’t leave the café until 9:30 p.m. on weekdays and 10:30 on weekends. That’s all my time.

LB: Those are grueling hours. What do you hope for in the future?

GC: I have to say that I’m proud we’re still here. Although I’m very happy with what we’ve accomplished at Ray’s, I want to do things even better. I want to have a bigger place, though not too big, with higher ceilings and drapes. I always picture someone in here just sitting and relaxing with a cup of good coffee. I want people to enjoy the coffee and to relax. And I really want them to enjoy the dumplings!