Pretty soon you’re going to have to confront cheese tea.
It’s not as disturbing as it sounds. This successor to Taiwanese bubble tea is relatively new to Chicago, but in its various forms it offers a sensory appeal similar to sipping milky coffee through lip-lathering latte foam.
But the word “cheese” is a hang-up in terms of branding. Cheese tea doesn’t involve suspending Limburger in Lipton’s. Rather, the dairy aspect of it is an aerated, milky, lightly salted cream cheese raft, ladled atop your tea of choice—primarily black, green, or oolong, though like much of the universe of milk teas, the possibilities seem endless. Chicago’s bubble tea pioneer Joy Yee has adopted this variant, and a Chinese-based chain, Tsaocaa, opened a shop in Chinatown last month.
But the pioneer for Chicago cheese tea is a nascent local chain, Bingo Tea, which opened its first outlet last August in Chinatown Square. The principals, long-time friends Albert Moy and Bin Chen, say they spent a year in Taiwan, learning the ins and out of the specialty along with a course in baked goods like pillow mango, matcha, durian, and ube breads.
Seems like a reasonable pairing that might work in more than a few neighborhoods around town and certain suburbs. But last month when they opened their second location on Argyle Street, they had something else in mind: Malaysian food.
Up until recently, that was one cuisine—a synthesis of Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, and European colonial influences—that was lacking in the city’s culinary firmament. After Chinatown’s Penang went up in smoke in 2008, you had to haul out to the Arlington Heights location for your laksa and beef rendang. Asian Noodle House in Hoffman Estates picked up some slack, but there have been encouraging developments over the past two years. First, there was Logan Square’s terrific Serai, which reintroduced the city to mainstays like laksa, rendang, and Hainanese chicken. Then came Family House (now Tea Leaf Garden) on Devon, offering nearly equal parts Burmese and Malaysian food.
And now there’s Bingo Tea Malaysian Café, which offers a neat menu of Malaysian noodle, rice, and snacky dishes to complement their vast tea options. In the kitchen is Sonny Lim, a former Penang chef, who keeps things somewhat familiar with chicken or tofu satay with peanut sauce, chicken wings, and roti canai, the flaky paratha and chicken-potato curry combo that turns out to be an ideal partner for one of the tall, creamy teas. Less common, penang lobak is a kind of deep ground pork and taro sausage marinated in five-spice, with a bean curd casing ideally swiped through searing, funky housemade sambal; and the Malay rojak is a sweet-savory fruit salad of mango, apple, jicama, and cucumber dressed in a thick soy-chili sesame dressing.
It seems enough to idle with snacks such as these, but with more substantial platters like cold, poached Hainanese chicken, or nasi lemak, a set of curried chicken and pandan-scented coconut rice, meant to be mingled at your pleasure with hard-cooked eggs, dried anchovies, and sambal, you could make an afternoon of it.
Bingo’s ancillary Malaysian menu is dominated by noodles, like seafood or shredded laksa drowning in coconut curry, or mee goreng, dry, stir-fried soy-saturated egg noodles with fat, just-cooked shrimp. But it’s the Kuala Lumpur pan mee that picks up some of the depth missing from those other dishes: wide flat noodles bathed in soy, with fish balls, ground pork, and shrimp, topped with dried anchovy, all meant to be combined with a murky chicken-anchovy broth served on the side.
Still, these dishes are almost afterthoughts to Bingo’s tea menu, which spans fruit teas (dragon, yuzu lemon honey, black grape), milk teas (buckwheat matcha, caramel black), and more subdued honey drinks. All are customizable with a variety of additions (boba, red beans, lychee jelly), but presiding above all is the “milk cap,” or “sea salt milk foam,” which is how the principals behind Bingo have rebranded cheese tea. You can top pretty much any drink with it, hot or cold, but I think its best expression is its most minimal: slowly descending into one of the black, green, or oolong teas, no sugar added. Don’t poke a straw through it. Sip through the lid’s aperture so the liquid passes through the foam, offering a hint of cheesecake and salt ahead of the tea’s tannins. If you’re inclined to post a cheese foam mustache selfie, you’re far from alone.
Bin Chen believes in the versatility of cheese tea, envisioning Bingo outlets specializing in Japanese or Thai food—whatever the hypothetical neighborhood requires (I propose cheese tea and egg curry in each terminal at O’Hare). Whichever direction it goes, the folks behind Bingo clearly have an eye for what’s underrepresented around town. After laksa and mee goreng, it’s probably best to move on anyway. By the dubious mathematics of cultural reporting, three Malaysian restaurants make a trend. v