Heirloom Brewshop, 219 South West Street, Raleigh, 919-297-8299, heirloombrewshop.com
I settle into a corner table by the fig tree with a mid-morning cup of oolong tea and Taiwanese pineapple cake. There is something so tranquil about Heirloom Brewshop, a coffee shop, tea house, and sake bar that opened in The Dillon in Raleigh last October, from the undulating wooden ceiling and the chill electronic music to the line-up of glass teapots filled with slowly steeping leaves. Looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows across South West Street, I see a mural with colorful handprints that gradually transform into human silhouettes, then a procession of people, one holding a sign that reads “Come each of you with your colors and forms fresh from dreaming.”
It’s fitting that this mural is located across the street from Heirloom, which is owned by husband-wife team Chuan Tsay and Anna Phommavong. As children of Taiwanese and Laotian immigrants, respectively, who both grew up in small towns in North Carolina, one of their founding principles for Heirloom was to create a canvas that represents the full range of who they are. The space, service, and menus all reflect the couple’s shared Taiwanese, Japanese, and Laotian cultures.
But the canvas is by no means a completed work. Rather, Heirloom is a foundation for the exploration and development of their identities—as individuals, as a couple, and as a restaurant—and for the evolution of downtown Raleigh.
When Heirloom was under construction, the couple introduced their concept to the public by wrapping the windows with vinyl coverings explaining their vision and story. Tsay says that his mom, given her experience of how Asian Americans can be treated when they trumpet their heritage, at first wanted him to take the vinyl coverings down.
While Tsay and Phommavong were each navigating what it meant to grow up Asian American in the eighties and nineties, their parents were also struggling to preserve their cultures while assimilating in America. Phommavong grew up in High Point and Greensboro; she recalls one of their restaurants serving pizza, sub sandwiches, and Chinese food in the front, while preparing Laotian food in the back. Tsay, whose parents were born in a part of Taiwan with a strong Japanese influence, spent most of his childhood in Asheboro, where his family owned a restaurant that served dim sum and Taiwanese fare, at a time when all Asian food was considered “Chinese” food. They also owned restaurants in other Southern states.
“The initial culinary concept wasn’t appreciated by most people in Asheboro,” Tsay says. “Some of their restaurants were loved and welcomed by some people, but I think the overwhelming majority of the communities back then were highly resentful of us.”
And sometimes, those hostile attitudes even became dangerous.
“I have been in the car with my dad when he was shot at,” Tsay says. “We have had restaurants torched before.”
In many respects, it is disheartening to see how little progress we’ve made in how we treat immigrants in this country. But despite the current political climate, and despite their parents’ fears of having their children open a restaurant, Tsay and Phommavong felt there was no better time to take the plunge.
“We want the community to see us as people, not just a store,” Tsay says. “Heirloom is the fabric of who we are, but we’re not limited to those three cultures. It is really a mindset of ‘be who you are.’ We want staff members to be proud of who they are, and we want to nurture that and have a safe sanctuary where people can be themselves, guests or otherwise.”
The creation of that environment stems, in large part, from the design of the space (both Tsay and Phommavong have backgrounds in design, too). Its focal point is the ceiling, which is an installation of individual planks of wood that was inspired by traditional Asian woodwork.
“[It’s about] simple shapes creating a whole that’s stronger than any single piece,” Tsay explains. “Given the [political] landscape of where we were three years ago, our philosophy on people and communities is that, as people, we are nothing but simple beings, but where we become strong and where we become whole is when we come together as a community.”
Another intentional design choice, and a more literal breaking down of barriers, is the bar. The bar itself and the pastel pink Marzocco espresso machine sit low enough to allow baristas to have eye contact with customers, and there are stools along the “slow bar,” so customers can sit and watch the barista prepare their coffee in the lab-like vacuum pot or wait for their tea to steep. In the evening, it’s where cocktails are prepared, many of them inspired in both flavor and form from the couple’s travels across Asia, particularly Japan, where presentation is paramount.
When I tell Phommavong that a friend of mine, upon noticing Heirloom, asked me, “When did Raleigh get so cool?” she smiles and pauses before responding.
“It’s nice to hear that it’s cool,” she says. “Because growing up as Asian American, I wanted to assimilate to my peers, so to serve the food that we do, or to prepare coffee the way that we do, it’s nice to find that acceptance and hear that others are really enjoying it as well.”
Though Heirloom focusses a lot on drinks, food is central, too. The menu is neither traditional nor fusion, but authentic, in that it remains true to Tsay and Phommavong’s vision. For example, you’ll find Taiwanese fried chicken, but you’ll also find Taiwanese fried lotus root. When cooked, lotus root’s starchy texture turns meaty like a mushroom, and part of the appeal—besides its crunchy coating and supremely savory flavor—is that the dish is vegan and gluten-free.
“It’s us being authentic to ourselves and respecting different dietary needs, but also applying traditional frying techniques. And that’s where we create a new tradition in this part of Raleigh,” Tsay says. “I think people now think that [fried lotus root] is normal. That’s how tradition starts, when there’s no rule on what is tradition and what’s not.”
A braised pork dish the couple is working on serves as a reminder that Tsay and Phommavong are still learning the nuances of each other’s cultures (and how to create something that honors them both). In Laos, the dish is called Thom Khem, and the pork is first pan-fried in fish sauce and caramelized sugar to strike the salty-sweet balance characteristic of Laotian cuisine. The Taiwanese version that Tsay grew up eating, Lo Ba, which translates to ‘stewed meat,’ is seasoned with vinegar, mirin, soy sauce, and Chinese five spice, creating a sharper flavor.
During our interview, my eyes wander to the shelves near the entrance, lined with dried flowers, jars of honey, boxes of tea, and bottles of sake, and I notice the small golden Buddha statue in the corner. There are cups of water, too, which Phommavong explains are offerings. Prior to Heirloom’s opening, the couple invited a monk to perform a blessing ceremony, to not only offer protection, warmth, and good luck, but also to pay respect to the building’s heritage.
“The monk did say that there was a spirit here who isn’t happy with the change of the entire building itself,” Phommavong says. “So, when we do the offering, we’re offering to the Buddha and also the spirit itself for allowing us to be here, because it’s not our space to begin with.”
A few weeks after the ceremony, a rabbi stopped by inquiring about using Heirloom for a menorah lighting he was planning, saying he felt it was a place that would respect his culture. Tsay and Phommavong eagerly obliged, clearing a space at the far end of the restaurant, trucking in kosher food from New York, and arranging for a separate fryer.
“It’s a two-way street. The enriching thing about having a space in the community is not only having a canvas to express ourselves as people, it’s learning about other people and other cultures,” Tsay says. “What makes other people feel human and special—that’s the same thing that makes us feel human and special.”