In December, a new Asian restaurant opened in Cedar Hill, taking over a former location of the Burger Island chain. In March, when coronavirus struck and forced the dining room’s temporary closure, the new owners hadn’t even finished remodeling.
Buns, Bowls & Bubbles reopened when it was legally allowed to do so. But the business, barely a few months old, struggled to gain traction and customer attention in a post-outbreak world.
Then owner Maria Ismawaty stumbled on the Facebook group Asian Grub in DFDub, and she had an idea: In addition to the restaurant’s usual fare of bubble tea, banh mi sandwiches and rice bowls, she’d add Saturday specials reflecting her own family’s native cuisine.
A few Saturdays later, Ismawaty was delivering Indonesian food all over North Texas.
Dallas doesn’t have any fully Indonesian restaurants. Some suburban spots have offered specific dishes, like Malaysian kitchen Secret Recipe in Carrollton and the Sri Lankan restaurant SpicyZest, which serves nasi goreng. So Buns, Bowls & Bubbles’ Saturday specials filled a culinary need, and Ismawaty’s dishes are a sudden success, including Indonesian fried chicken, nasi goreng, bakmi and pandan-flavored chiffon cakes.
It helps that almost all of the best Asian restaurants in the Dallas area are dozens of miles to the north.
“Cedar Hill is a growing city,” says Ismawaty, who has lived in Texas for 15 years. “I wished there was something in my city, so that I don’t have to drive to Plano.”
Nevertheless, she now does drive to Plano — but as a chef, not a customer. Buns, Bowls & Bubbles makes deliveries on its Saturday Indonesian meals, which are specially pre-ordered online days in advance so that the restaurant knows how much food to make. Customers have ordered from as far away as McKinney. Last week, Ismawaty told a potential buyer that she was willing to deliver to Wylie.
“I was thinking, what can I do?” she says, recalling the thought process which inspired her Indonesian specials. “I tried to get on Yelp. Should I do Uber delivery, all this kind of stuff? And then I stumbled over to that Asian Grub group. After I joined the group I didn't start right away on the special offerings, because there are so many stores — how can I compete? There are a lot of restaurants that have been open a long time. How can I introduce myself?”
Her first post, on May 11, was simple: “Does anyone have any interest in Indonesian foods?” That question generated 90 comments, and a business was reborn.
About half of the Saturday customers come from the roughly 1,500 Indonesian-Americans in Dallas; the other half include Malaysians, Singaporeans and people from other cultures who want to try the food, often for the first time.
“Our food is similar to Thai,” Ismawaty says. “A lot of our food is based on coconut milk, lemongrass and a little bit spicy. There are a couple spices that are special to Indonesian food, like galangal and spices we put more of [than other cultures]. And most of it contains shrimp paste.”
Buns, Bowls & Bubbles makes an attempt to honor Indonesia’s diversity, too, by presenting different recipes from different islands in the archipelago. The June 6 menu, for example, spotlit Bali with local versions of nasi and ayam betutu (spiced whole Cornish hen). Ismawaty uses Cornish hens for her fried chicken, too, because Indonesian birds tend to be smaller than their American counterparts.
The restaurant’s next step is to slowly train its employees on these one-day-only special recipes so that they can serve them more frequently. For line cooks untrained in Indonesian food, there’s a steep learning curve, part of the reason that the special menu is only prepared one day per week.
“Every week I do a different menu, and half of the menu is a repeat from last week,” Ismawaty explains. “It’s a way for me to teach the guys at the restaurant. Indonesian food is complicated — even for one dish, there are too many spices to work with. It needs to be repeatable.”
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When the dishes can be executed more frequently, Buns, Bowls & Bubbles will add a midweek Indonesian delivery service and try to promote the menu more directly to Cedar Hill neighbors. Some day the specials may be available all weekend, or even to other parts of Texas.
In a way, coronavirus might help clarify the restaurant’s mission.
“In the beginning I really worried looking at this,” Ismawaty says. “We were real behind on rent. But the response and the feedback have helped me. I’ve calmed a little bit, and this has actually given me an idea on what I have to take on next.”
Buns, Bowls & Bubbles, 104 W. Belt Line Rd. #11, Cedar Hill. Indonesian menu specials posted online