Starting a new business in a pandemic is no easy task, but husband-wife duo Chamroeun Chea and Hengtaing Nelson have made it work with their restaurant, Mayta’s Cafe.
The dynamic menu of blended Asian and American cuisine, inspired by the Cambodian food the owners grew up eating, debuted in April 2020 in a storefront at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. The couple had moved back to Minnesota from Florida to raise their family.
“It’s more than just business. It’s more than just money,” Chea said. “Money is always come and go, but doing what you love and feeling like you’re doing something for the community or for the people — it makes you feel a little bit better.”
Chea cites his wife as the instigator for starting a restaurant business, as her family has a background in working in the food industry.
“Mayta in Khmer means compassion, and that’s what we’re fueled by,” the restaurant’s website states. Mayta is also the name of one of the couple’s sons.
With the Minneapolis location situated in a hospital, most of the customer base is made up of hospital staff and patients.
“Coming here just changed my perspective of life a little bit, or quite a bit,” Chea said of the HCMC location, which also serves a lot of doctors and dialysis patients. “You get to know them, you serve them, and you see them decline. It’s a real reminder to me to make the most of every day.”
Chea and various family members have also received life-saving treatment at HCMC through the years.
“It’s like home, sweet home,” he said. “This place does amazing things.”
The love Chea has for HCMC and the community he serves there hasn’t stopped Mayta’s Cafe from expanding to other locations. The Chaska site came about after Chea received a call from a friend regarding the empty storefront at Audubon Center.
“I like the location and I grew up in Minnetonka, so I have friends in Chaska, Eden Prairie, Chanhassen. It’s my area. It makes sense and I decided to go for it — and I’m glad I did,” he said. “Chaska so far has been really good to us.”
Chea, a self-proclaimed food fanatic, but also picky eater, is always switching up the menu to keep things fresh. As he gets to know the Chaska community better, he intends to adjust the menu to the tastes of the community.
“My wife does most of the recipe stuff and she can get most of the credit, but I can hold my own,” he said.
Chea’s food influences come from his mom’s home cooking and the American-style food he was introduced to and fascinated by when first coming to the U.S. in 1992. Chea was born in Cambodia and spent the first part of his life raised in a refugee camp in Thailand. He says that Nelson came to the U.S. from Cambodia as a young adult.
“I have a spicy taste in food, and I started doing fun stuff, fused Asian sauces, yum yum sauce going into wraps, spicy Caesar going into wraps, peanut sauce all of a sudden going into wraps, spicy honey mustard with hot pepper going into things, and dabbling with other seasonings.”
Fusion offerings on the Chaska menu include meals such as the yum yum chicken tender wrap, peanut chicken tender wrap, yum yum burger and peanut bacon burger. Chea also likes to serve his unique take on spaghetti.
“It’s like a Cambodian version. You’ve never had anybody putting oyster sauce, soy sauce, sriracha into a spaghetti sauce, but I do it, and [customers] like it,” Chea said.
Chea hopes to establish a reputation of “great food, freshness and quality” through his restaurant locations, which is why he and Nelson make a lot of the food from scratch.
“Me and my wife, we like to make our own sauce. Just about everything we do is made from scratch — from our sauce to our chicken, the batters, everything. Nothing is frozen,” he said. Nelson makes the egg rolls and the wontons from scratch as well.
Mayta’s Cafe, across all locations, currently has a staff of fewer than 10 people, but Chea looks forward to expanding his staff and business.
“The staffing part is very hard right now,” Chea said. “Everything you do, I want to be perfect. I know it’s hard to be perfect, but I just have high expectations of what we’re doing.”
Chea said that Mayta’s Cafe locations are “always hiring.”
“I believe that what we’re doing is a little unique, a little different and I want to share that with the world,” Chea said.