During Hurricane Ida, New Yorkers were shocked by videos of subway stations completely submerged in water, including many in Queens. Yet after only one week, the vibrant culture of the mass transit system has returned.
The subways are yet again a place to watch a dance routine, listen to a mariachi band, and enjoy some world-class Burmese cuisine.
Since the spring of 2020, Yun Cafe & Asian Mart has been nestled underground right by the entrance to the 74th St-Broadway/Roosevelt Ave subway station in Jackson Heights. Within that time, the young store has endured through the heights of the pandemic and now the serious flash-flooding brought upon by Ida.
However, these roadblocks haven’t stopped the new business from accruing a loyal base of customers in the neighborhood and national media attention from outlets such as the New Yorker and Gothamist.
Yun Yati Naing, who manages the cafe alongside her Burmese immigrant parents, discussed the impact that Hurricane Ida had on the small business, as well as her larger goals for the cafe going forward.
“All these bottles and stuff were wet,” Naing said while gesturing around the cafe’s small dining area, “and what’s more frustrating is that it wasn’t just water. There was a lot of oil that came with it. I don’t know where that all came from, maybe from some of the food we keep inside the store.”
Naing and her family had to drain over a foot of water from the cafe the morning after Ida. Additionally, the store experienced an electric outage that ruined one of its refrigerators, consequently damaging a large amount of food.
Yet to the naked eye, Yun Cafe looks just as clean as ever. Even when flooding isn’t an issue, the store’s owners are feverishly dedicated to making the space feel welcoming and homey, an oasis hidden within the labyrinthian tunnels of the Jackson Heights subway station.
“There’s a different vibe when you walk into the store from outside [in the station],” Naing explained. “A lot of people say that when you come inside it feels like you are somewhere else. Our store is very friendly and very cozy, and if you are a regular we definitely know who you are and we feel like friends.”
This comfortable atmosphere is enhanced by the food served, which includes an assortment of traditional Burmese dishes that utilize a variety of locally sourced and internationally shipped fresh ingredients.
“It’s very flavorful and has a fresh taste to it,” Naing said. “We use many types of vegetables, mixed with fermented things or noodles. It tastes flavorful but isn’t heavy. You can always adjust the spice level and sour level, too.”
Popular menu items include the laphet thoke (tea leaf salad), gin thoke (fermented ginger salad), and kaut swe thoke (noodle salad with chicken and boiled egg). The cafe also serves a variety of Burmese soups and teas.
Ever since the store was featured in the New Yorker and other publications, it has attracted many new visitors from near and far. However, a large amount of the store’s business comes from loyal customers who stop by frequently for a meal, drink, or to pick up some groceries, as it serves as a marketplace, as well.
“We see many Burmese people, a lot of them come from Queens and others come from Brooklyn,” Naing explained. “They come when they want to get the food, dry goods, or vegetables that we carry. But we also get non-Burmese people in the area and others who read the articles and travel all the way from New Jersey or something just to visit a small space like this.”
Located right below Diversity Plaza, Yun Cafe & Asian Mart is surrounded by an array of different businesses, cultures, and cuisines that have earned Queens its nickname as the “world’s borough.”
Even with all the trials the city has faced this past year, Naing and her family have always felt welcomed by the people of Jackson Heights.
“We’re just very honored to be part of this diverse community,” Naing said. “A lot of people come to Queens to experience Asian cultures and their food, and that really means a lot to us.
“People are very, very open minded, and they want to explore new cuisines and they want to explain they’re very appreciative of other culture,” she added. “So if you want to show off your cuisine, I think New York City is a place to do it.”
For more information, visit @yuncafeandasianmart on Instagram.