Bringing People Together One Bowl at a Time

by Jamie LaFreniere


Bowl Ninety-One
100 East College Avenue, Appleton
(in City Center)

Yee and Thong Lee are the perfect example of hard work paying off. The young couple now owns two restaurants in the Valley, Bowl 91 in downtown Appleton, and Big Pot & Grill on Calumet Street.

“Without the amazing staff, we couldn’t do all of this,” says Yee. “We train our staff so they can cook the full menu and provide good service to everyone who walks through our door.”

This philosophy is a family tradition learned from Yee’s mother Mai, owner of Mai’s Deli. They worked with her for six years, but Yee also spent that time working at the library and finishing her degree.

While Yee worked at the library, she would often enjoy lunch at C.S.I. in City Center. The small cafeteria-style restaurant went up for sale, and Yee and Thong saw an opportunity. They revamped and opened as City Café.

The five-day work week and existing reputation was an easy win for them, and they were able to add curry and noodles to the menu. They also did the Farmer’s Market downtown and offered Asian-inspired tacos. Many will remember Mai also got her start at the Farmer’s Market with her stuffed chicken wings.

After two years of success, the couple was ready for something bigger. They traveled around the country looking for popular items, and settled on ramen, staying in California to learn traditional preparations and recipes.

When it came time to choose a space, Yee didn’t need to look far, and settled on the space right across the hall from City Café. Along with making the space their own, they needed to make the food their own. “We took the food we grew up with, Hmong and Thai food, and mixed it with Japanese cuisine,” says Yee.

And that nod to their heritage is present in all they do, even in the name of the restaurant. “1991 was the year my family came here as refugees. And our meals are served in a bowl or family style, so we can be creative.”

She’s right about the creativity! Where else are you going to find Beef Bulgogi Tacos? The beef is sliced thin, marinated and grilled, then topped with spicy kimchi. The entire menu is filled with fusion dishes that highlight the best of various cultures.

But the real focus of Bowl 91 is their ramen. “We are fusing the different Asian spices and flavors together. We put a lot of thought and passion into our cooking, and we’re proud of what we serve.”

With pride comes dedication, and their menu is very labor intense. Yee explains, “We roll every single pork belly. It needs to simmer for 10 hours at low heat, so someone must always watch it. You can’t skip a step.” Their broth is a 20-hour process.

Yee again attributes this dedication to her mom’s teachings. “When I told her that I wanted to open my own restaurant she was so proud and looking forward to me being even better than her. You always wish for your children to be better. I’m creating this legacy for my children.”

And they keep adding to the opportunities. Along with Bowl 91 and Big Pot & Boil, they are also opening another restaurant. They feel confident not only because of their obvious skills in the kitchen, but because of the support they feel in our community.

“We’ve been through a lot growing up and resettling in the United States,” Yee says. “So when opportunity comes, we take it. We try to always give that opportunity back to our community.”