Tucked away in a dark office complex basement at 418 E. College Ave. is a restaurant that at least one reviewer claims serves the best Chinese food in State College.
Similarly satisfied customers have given the Big Bowl Noodle House four-star ratings on Yelp and Google Reviews.
Inside, Big Bowl is well-lit and simply furnished. The ceiling is bare and the walls are lined with sand-lime tiles.
Big Bowl, owned by a family with roots in Hong Kong and Taiwan, is popular with State College’s Chinese community and with other international and American students and others. The restaurant is best known for its wide variety of noodle dishes. It also has daily specials depending on the season and availability of ingredients.
The restaurant opened in 1998 and was previously managed by an elderly couple in a smaller space adjacent to its current location. The Yip family bought it in 2005 and moved it to its current spot four years later.
The family’s first restaurant venture in the U.S. was near Williamsburg. After much consideration, the Yips decided to take over Big Bowl when the former owners retired.
“There weren’t a lot of Chinese restaurants in State College at that time. After surveying downtown State College, we thought it would be a good idea to run a Chinese restaurant here,” Agnes Yip said.
They found a growing potential market. According to the Penn State Directorate of International Student & Scholar Advising, the local international student population has been growing by 1 percent a year for the past five years. During the 2013-2014 academic year, international students made up 13 percent of the student body at University Park.
Agnes Yip, her husband, sister-in-law and a cousin run the restaurant together and employ eight others. Yip, originally from Hong Kong, is mostly in charge of operations.
The restaurant’s top-three selling dishes are Singapore rice noodles, braised beef noodles and stir fried ho fun, a flat, wide rice noodle similar to fettuccine.
Big Bowl initially catered to Chinese customers, but as Americans started to patronize the restaurant, the Yips added popular American-Chinese dishes such as General Tso’s chicken and chicken with broccoli.
“We added those dishes to cater to our American customers. I am happy Big Bowl is a place where diverse groups of friends can have a meal together. There’s something for everyone,” Yip said.
She said Big Bowl serves about 200 customers a day, although traffic drops by as much as 60 percent during holiday periods and in the summer. The restaurant gets its supplies from food distributors in Philadelphia and New York.
Yip attributes the restaurant’s success to its prices, variety of dishes and its large space.
“On the weekends, many clubs and organizations have meetings and socials. They don’t need to tip and they have a lot of space for their meetings,” she said.
Most of the dishes served at Big Bowl are Taiwanese and Hong Kong in flavor. This sets the restaurant apart from local competitors, she said.
“Most Chinese restaurants here serve Szechuan food. Flavors are stronger and spicier. Our dishes tend to be milder and less spicy,” she said.
Yip said she does not believe in copying the menus of other successful Chinese restaurants for her business. She said she has seen too many Chinese restaurants offering the same dishes.
“Instead of creating the same product and sharing the profits, I would rather create a niche product and reap all the profits,” she said.
“We’ve had other restaurants try to copy some of our dishes, too. Before we served black pepper beef, no one else did. But I am not too worried about competition; our customers are very discerning. They know quality, so they always come back,” Yip said.
She said that a problem bigger than competition is finding qualified help. Locating skilled cooks has proved challenging. Yip has placed several advertisements in recruitment agencies.
“The chef is really the lifeblood of our restaurant. He needs to be able to cook and understand Chinese cuisine to give our customers the best,” Yip said.
The staffing problem and a growing number of competitors are reasons the Yips have no plans to expand, she said. “Unlike 10 years ago, downtown State College now has a lot of Chinese restaurants.”
Big Bowl is open from 11.30 a.m. to 9.30 p.m. daily. Only cash is accepted.