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JoJo Law-Yone Turned A Pop-Up Bodega Into DC’s Only Burmese Restaurant

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Born in Burma (now Myanmar), Jocelyn Law-Yone’s formative years in Rangoon (now Yangon) began in comfort, but ended in a military coup, political detention, and finally, departure. She immigrated to the United States in 1970 and went on to have a 15-year career as an English and art history teacher at Duke Ellington School of the Arts near Washington DC. She came out of retirement in 2016 to host her very first popup selling faloodas—a South Asian and Middle Eastern layered dessert of ice cream, milk, and fruit jellies. Two popups later, she cofounded Toli Moli, a Burmese bodega inside Union Market, along with her daughter, Simone Jacobson, and their business partner, Eric Wang. Toli Moli closed, but its success led “Chef JoJo” and her partners to the 2019 opening of Thamee, DC’s only full-service Burmese restaurant.

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I was the youngest of six children, the child of a newspaperman. My father was at the peak of his writing career. Rangoon was in this robust time—a good time in my family’s life and in the country’s life.

We had a large kitchen and a really big staff. I would be fascinated with how they cooked—they would dig a hole in the ground and put in coals and wood, pull things growing in the garden, and just throw it all in together. And it was just fantastic.

I would mimic what the cook did. Dig a hole. Put wood in there. Start a fire. Get a pot from the kitchen. There I was, cooking a meal. I did a lot of that without anyone stopping or questioning what I was doing. There were no bars for me. All that stays with you, no matter what your job is or how you’re paying your bills.

Jocelyn Law-Yone as a child in Rangoon, Burma.

In 1962, when I was 10, my father was jailed as a political prisoner. There was a coup d’etat. They came, surrounded the house in the middle of the night, and banged on the door. He knew who was coming and realized what it was. So he went back into the bedroom and was trying to explain everything to my mother. Where the money was. Who to go to in case he never returned. It was four in the morning, and my mother, I can only imagine, must have been overwhelmed. And she said, “What are you doing? Why are you whispering? I’m going to have to remember all of this!”

He said the reason he was whispering was that in the next room was his youngest daughter—me—and he was afraid that I would wake up. Because if I woke up and saw all these young soldiers with their guns, I would have said, “Hit them!”. He would have had to do that—and end up being shot—so as not to lose face with me. Or do nothing, and forever lose face with me.

I look back at that time, and it’s difficult for me to believe he thought I would have said that. And that’s something I think about often.

For two of the five years in prison, my father was in solitary confinement. He was only allowed to come out for a bath or walk. There were communist students on the first floor. He was on the second floor. They asked if he would teach them English because they didn’t know how to speak it. So, my father would cut the little white part at the bottom of the newspaper, use it to write down their grammar lessons for the day, roll it into a ball, and throw it down to the first floor. This went on until he was released, and in a way, I think it kept him alive.

Everything changed after my father got released.

We had to leave the country. First we stayed at The Strand hotel in Rangoon for something like two months—now people are happy to just stay there for one night. This went on because of all the red tape. The day finally came for us to leave, and somehow word got out. The entire airport was filled with people wanting to say their goodbyes, including the movie star who bought our family home. So then in 1970, we were part of the first wave of Burmese immigrants that came to America.

As far as food was concerned, if you couldn’t get it in America, you had to make it yourself. If there was an herb or a curry or a sauce, and you didn’t have it, then you would just try to put things together to create that flavor. This is how all through college, I ate well. My boyfriend at the time was living in an A-frame in this beautiful area along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. It was just gorgeous. We had a big kitchen where I was always able to cook and eat good food.

Photo: Reema Desai.

After I graduated from college, I worked for ABC News for a while. The reason I got my job at ABC is because while I was working in a restaurant, customers knew I was the daughter of a prominent Burmese journalist and editor. So I’ve been sort of in and out of restaurants throughout my life. Mostly front of house and working for Wolfgang Puck.

After being a stay-at-home mom with my two daughters for about 10 years, I started teaching. The kind of teaching I did was an all-consuming education. Some people can sit around, read the news, and have a cup of coffee. I’m obsessed, as I always am, about the bigger picture and what the students in high school are thinking. I would do all this research to make sure that the lesson my students had with me was beneficial.

After 15 years of that, I finally retired. It was then that my daughter Simone came up to me. As far back as she can remember, we were always talking about what we would do together. “Let’s do this,” she said. “We should open up a falooda shop.”

I have the most wonderful memories of Burma, but falooda made me happy.

We started designing the cup, and thinking about what’s in falooda that we like—I’m not going to make anything out of a package. I looked at the Rooh Afza drink, which is what I’ve used my whole life to make falooda. I look carefully at the ingredients, and it’s full of chemicals and dyes.

So it took me six months to get my own Rooh Afza right. To try to mimic that neon color and flavor and texture out of nature—it’s a really thick liquid—is really hard because nature does its own thing and turns its own color. I went around tweaking the recipe forever until I got it right.

In 2016, we had our first popup at EatsPlace, a food incubator in DC. I remember Simone asking me, “How many faloodas are you going to make?” I thought, enough for about forty friends that might come and support me. And she said, “No mom, make four hundred.” I’ll never forget thinking, “That’s ridiculous.” It was the middle of the winter, there was a massive snowstorm, and there was ice cream involved.

Simone is such a connector, such a force. She always has a solution. For her, it’s never like, oh god, wring your hands. It’s always, “Okay. Yeah. There’s a problem, and we’re going to fix it!” What she’s had to do behind the scenes is such hard work. I could never do those things.

But it worked. We sold out of four hundred faloodas in four hours.

People from all over the world came. All kinds of people. Because the inside was all packed, they all sat outside together in the middle of winter. Strangers who didn’t know each other became friends. Everyone who knew it as falooda, faloodeh, all those people came!

So we did another popup at Thip Khao, a Laotian restaurant. Amazing supporters and friends. Six hundred people came. We sold out that night. We thought, “Well, maybe we do have something here.”

We started thinking about where our first place should be. I thought Union Market was really a fun place. And Union Market said, “Yeah great, let’s have a falooda shop.” The next time we met, like a year later, I just brought out some Burmese food to be hospitable. And they said, “Yeaaaaah, you need to add this food to your menu!”

Photo: Reema Desai.

So then we moved into a bodega. We created a curated space for chefs to come in and cook and promote their books. Toli Moli became a place where people just wanted to have a bowl of soup with me. I was cooking on a burner on a countertop. I had nothing. For three years, chefs would come in and say that they’ve never seen anyone cook like this before. And the reason I could do that was because when I was a child, I could cook outside! From nothing.

It just kind of blossomed from there. Chefs in the area would be so supportive and include us in everything. Once word got out on social media, it just sort of grew to a point where I was kind of recognized by people. And that would always surprise me. “Oh, you’re the mohinga lady. You’re the one that makes falooda.”

These days I have been thinking about so many things in my past. I’m a product of two Burmese grandmothers, one Chinese grandfather, and one British grandfather. I find so much in just who I am. My whole heritage is so rich.

Having Thamee now has been unbelievable. If I wasn’t sure I could do it, I wouldn’t have done it. I really thought about it for three years. “Am I really going to be able to do this at my age?”

But my colleagues whom I taught with, and even my students—when they see all the accolades and everything we’ve achieved, they’re really not surprised. They reminded me that the entire time I was teaching, I talked about food with such passion. I brought in food for them. I introduced them to food. So in a way, it’s never really been a big transition for me.

Because I am it—the sheer energy that I think I inherited from my father. And determination. Just that can-do attitude with an incredible love for ingredients that make that bite. I have so much in my lifetime to share from. This is where I will be drawing from. That’s all I can do.