Wee’s Cozy Kitchen: Malaysian restaurant in back of gas station

Katie Chang, General Life&Arts Reporter

Take a peek into the Shell on 24th and Rio Grande Street. Behind a beer cave and shelves stocked with chips and champagne, there’s a small galley kitchen occupied by bok choy, bean sprouts and owner Wee Fong Ehlers.

A J2 cook by day and business-owner by night, Ehlers said she opened Wee’s Cozy Kitchen in November 2021. Yet, due to the restaurant’s hidden location and lack of online presence, Ehlers said she struggled to bring in customers for nearly a year. It wasn’t until a mix of coincidence and collaboration with UT student organizations that Ehlers’ love for cooking found an adoring audience.

Ehlers, a Malaysian-Chinese immigrant, said she followed her sister’s family to Austin in 1999. For 11 years, Ehlers worked in The Castilian as a cook in charge of large batches of sauce — an experience she said she credits for her cooking ability.

Despite learning to cook in the United States, Ehlers said she recalls childhood meals to create Malaysian flavors. To ensure her authentic flavors, Ehlers said she makes a point to source only the highest quality ingredients.

“I grew up with the flavors (on) my tongue,” Ehlers said. “Every time I change my ingredients, I taste it. I feel it. I’m a part-time business, (so) it’s more convenient for me (to) buy frozen galangal (spice) instead of the fresh galangal, but the frozen galangal’s taste is totally different.”

Chemistry freshman Justin Le, who stumbled upon Wee’s Cozy Kitchen on a late-night snack run, said he could taste Ehlers’s quality ingredients.

“I walked into (Shell) to get a bag of chips and soda, but then (I) looked to the corner, and there’s this little kitchen with some tables around,” Le said. “I was thrown back because I got the chicken curry laksa, (and it had) big, fresh vegetables that I can only get back at home. It reminded me of eating homestyle food.”

Le said he told his roommate Yee Hong Pua, a computer and electrical engineering and business freshman, about Wee’s after his first visit. Yet, Pua said he didn’t give the restaurant a second thought until his student organization, University Management and Business Research Association, worked to increase Wee’s exposure by developing her Instagram page and conducting profit shares.

Pua, a child of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants, said he especially enjoyed consulting for Ehlers because of her role in spreading Malaysian-Chinese cuisine.

“Growing up, I didn’t really see any Malaysian-Chinese restaurants around,” Pua said. “The only Malaysian-Chinese food I could get was from my parents or going back to Malaysia. As a person of the same culture that identifies with her, it’s really heartwarming to help her business grow.”

Pua said he credits Wee’s rapid growth — a doubled Instagram following and features by Bon Appétit and The Infatuation — to her personal charm and passion for cooking.

“(When) we started working with her, I started to really see (her) charm,” Pua said. “It’s a one-woman shop, she runs the whole thing. She puts a lot of heart into her food, and she takes time to interact with all her customers, which is something I don’t think you see a lot with restaurants these days.”

Ehlers said her newfound fame serves as a testament to years of hard work and allows her to introduce Malaysian food to the greater Austin community.

“It seems like I passed through a very shaky bridge (over) raging water (and) crocodiles (and) snakes,” Ehlers said. “Now I know my food is good. It’s recognized, (and) I’m so happy (the) Malaysian name is exposed to Austin people.”