Tim Tai

On the corner of Howe Street and Whalley Avenue, close to the Broadway Triangle, stands Basil Restaurant. While strolling beneath the stars, one might mistake the brown-bricked building for an apartment. Upon closer inspection, one is greeted by a sign in white typeface that identifies the Asian American restaurant; a basil leaf, adorably small, replaces the dot above the “i.”

A toddler scampers to the takeout table, with bags of rice looming over her. Seconds later, a masked woman, dressed in black pants, shirt and apron, her hair in a ponytail, calls out to her daughter. She exits the kitchen and greets me from the cash register. It’s Lia Yu, manager of Basil Restaurant.

“Hello, John! How are you? How are classes?” 

Her voice is high and warm, like a mother inviting strangers into her home. An Uber Eats driver comes up to the take-out table, and a group of youth are waiting behind. Although there are no places for customers to sit — the chairs that usually populate the interior remain stacked on tables — Basil still attracts customers. 

Yu is the niece of Claudia Tjia, who owns the family-run business and is currently home in Indonesia, caring for her mother nearly 10,000 miles from New Haven. Yu has worked at the restaurant since its opening in 2009, managing the restaurant for three years before moving to North Carolina to get married. Yu and her husband Jay Jiang later returned to New Haven in 2016 to help Tjia with her business, with Yu resuming her post as manager. The restaurant’s varied menu reflects the family’s heritage, which can be traced to China, Indonesia and Malaysia. At Basil, one can sample General Tso’s chicken and broccoli, Indonesian stir-fried egg noodles or mie goreng, Malaysian curry and chicken satay skewers.

Cultural artifacts embellish the restaurant. Blue-skinned wayang goleks, portraying Indonesia’s history of puppetry, dangle by the red-glowing “OPEN” sign. Yu showed me a video of puppet masters controlling the ornate, wooden puppets. Three angklungs — or bamboo tube instruments — hang side by side, facing diners. Pictures also adorn the walls, including multiple Buddha panels and statues and a framed meadow with red, orange and brown hues.  

“We wanted to use the decorations and show we’re proud of our culture,” Yu said. “To make customers feel like they are at home.”

Basil Finding a Home at Yale

Basil isn’t Tjia’s first restaurant. The family used to own Kari in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood. However, due to low business, Kari closed in 2005. Yu explained that the dishes seemed too new because not many Asian restaurants existed in the area. “I think people were not used to it,” she said. “Back then, when you say you came from Indonesia or Malaysia, people might not know.”  

“Maybe they do know Vietnam,” Yu added, remembering my last name, Nguyen. “Because of the war,” I filled in her sentence. We both giggled. 

The owners ultimately relocated to the Shops at Yale area, creating a new name for their business: Basil. Tjia was living in New Haven for more than 20 years, and she enjoys downtown New Haven.

“I think time helped people in the United States get better used to our food,” Yu explained. 

After having cooked an order of pad thai, Jiang emerged from the kitchen to join our conversation. His family used to run a restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he and Yu helped out. Customer demographics noticeably shifted upon moving from Raleigh to New Haven, Jiang said. “There are lots of students here. [In Raleigh, our customers were] mostly families and residents and more older people.”

Yu enjoys the restaurant’s proximity to Yale. “I like seeing the students having fun,” she said, as she walked toward the ringing telephone to pick up another order.

Jiang emphasized the unifying power of their restaurant. “Customers are from different places; the Yale students are from around the world. But they all still come here to try our food.”

Jiang is the assistant chef, while Tjia’s husband, Kai Chow, is the head chef. In addition to leading the kitchen team, Chow prepares the different sauces for all of the foods, from appetizers to entrees.

Being the lead chef of Basil has provided Chow with the opportunity to continue pursuing his passion for cooking. “People told me that they love my food, so Claudia and I worked together to open Basil,” Chow said. Yu translated his words from Cantonese to English. 

“He has talent!” added Yu, nodding.

Chow has been in the food industry for over 25 years. “[Tjia and Chow] both wanted to create a space where they could share their love for homestyle Asian food,” Yu said. The family aspired to expand people’s palettes and introduce Sino-Southeast Asian cuisine to the community. 

Yu’s most cherished menu items are spring rolls, stir-fried dumplings and General Tso’s chicken. Upon noticing my Snackpass order of beef drunken noodles and scallion pancakes, Yu approved my choices. “Everybody loves crunchy, sweet and spicy food!” she exclaimed.

The Yale area, of course, is no stranger to Asian cuisine. Businesses like Basil, Junzi, Ivy Wok and Yamasaki Teriyaki all provide locals with a variety of Asian dishes. “There’s community, I think, with the different Asian restaurants closeby,” said Yu. 

Learning from Kari, Basil staff added dishes to their menu so as to be more familiar with customers. “There’s not just Malaysian food like at Kari, but also Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Indonesian.”

There is a Chinese saying on which Basil’s name is based: jin bu huan, which has multiple meanings, according to Jiang. “Jin bu huan means ‘not to be exchanged even for gold’ or ‘valuable’ in Chinese,” added Yu, kindly pointing to a translation app on her phone.

To the staff, basil and other herbs fit with this idea of jin bu huang. “Of course, we also use basil to make the food smell more good,” said Yu. “The restaurant name shows food makes people happy. There’s good luck.”

Combating COVID-19

Like many other small businesses, Basil has been operating even during the pandemic. The business closed for four weeks in March 2020, when Yalies, who are Basil’s most frequent customers, were forced to complete the spring semester through Zoom. Following this brief hiatus, Basil reopened for takeout — the system still used today, 20 months later. 

Prior to COVID-19, Basil had eight employees. When the pandemic arrived, Basil had to cut three people due to the closing of dine-in services. “Lower business means we couldn’t have as many staff members,” Yu emphasized. “It was very challenging.” 

As an additional result of the pandemic, Basil changed their closing time from 11:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. This change was also in light of concerns about nighttime safety. “We do worry [about anti-Asian hate in the United States],” Yu commented. “Not knowing anything that would happen. I talked to my aunt and she said the same — very scary.” 

These worries are not unwarranted. Asian American businesses across the nation — including grocery stores, markets, bakeries and restaurants — have been victims of hate vandalism, from racist graffiti to arson attacks. According to new data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, anti-Asian hate crimes skyrocketed by 73 percent in 2020, which is “a disproportionate uptick compared to hate crimes in general, which rose 13 percent,” writes Sakshi Venkatraman. 

Despite the manifold uncertainties, Yu remains buoyant. “Since the U.S. is a multiethnic country,” she said, “I believe that everything will be okay in the end.”

Going Mobile

Yu attributes mobile ordering apps to having alleviated some of the stress related to maintaining a steady profit during COVID-19. Multiple orders can be taken at the same time, Yu told me, compared to phone or in-person orders — both of which can hinder efficiency. 

“For phone orders, I have to write it down, and it can be sometimes stressful when customers are all calling a lot,” said Yu. “Then I have to leave people on hold, and they might hang up the line because we’re not answering.”  

Although Basil took advantage of the apps prior to the pandemic, no substantial success accompanied this ordering system. Mobile ordering has bloomed out of the COVID-19 era, Yu said. “Snackpass, for example, helps us organize when we should have orders ready.”

Food delivery has been a “silver lining” during COVID-19. Yu noted that in addition to Snackpass, Uber Eats and DoorDash have expanded Basil’s business — so much so that Basil staff decided not to hire a driver of their own. “Actually, we considered hiring a driver for Basil to deliver food, but we thought that was not needed,” she added. “Uber Eats is very efficient.” 

However, Uber Eats takes “a large percentage of the total order price — about 35 percent or 30 percent,” said Yu. This commission or marketplace fee has sparked debate in its restaurant partners, but the practice has persisted nonetheless. 

Looking Forward

Nearly two years after the start of the pandemic, as more activities return to in-person format, Basil staff are preparing to open for dining. Their staff numbers increased from five to seven, with both full-time and part-time employees. 

“Fall 2020 compared to fall 2021, we’re doing a little better finances,” said Yu.

She anticipates the restaurant will open for in-person dining at the beginning of 2022. The problem, however, might be searching for workers. “Hiring can be hard. We have to find people to work here” — she pointed to the dining area — “and there,” she said, gesturing to the kitchen. “I think some family members are returning, so that will be helpful to the kitchen team. The main thing is hiring and training the waiters.” 

Maintaining cleanliness after the pandemic is also crucial, said Yu. The variants of COVID-19 have raised concerns about reopening.

Although the feeling of community has been absent due to the lack of staff-diner interaction, Yu is optimistic. “We miss a lot of people. But hopefully, we can get over this pandemic soon.”