That’s a question worth pondering when it comes to the latest Asian up-and-comer in the San Francisco restaurant scene: Burmese. Where is the integral, Nobel Prize-winning authenticity, amid the lockstep popularity of tea–leaf and rainbow salads?
It’s all new to me: zero Burmese restaurants dotted the landscape of Chinese chop suey joints and Japanese mom-and-pop eateries in Honolulu, Hawaii when I was growing up. My family would dutifully suck down chow mein, egg foo young, and all the yakis, from teri to suki, but sashimi was considered beyond the pale. My pepper-adverse Cantonese father and Tums-popping Japanese mother would have summed up Burmese cuisine – a combination of the turmeric, coriander, and cumin-infused foods of neighboring India, Thailand, and China – as “too spicy!” and wrinkled their schnozzes.
In contrast I’d describe myself as a complete and total global glutton, fully prepared to belly up to the world’s smorgasbord and vacuum up everything from sweetbreads to squid-ink pasta. Burma’s grub is just the ticket for a border-crossing food scavenger like myself: where else can you find dishes topped with a hearty helping of garlic – in the form of oil and/or crispy flakes – as well as silky tidbits of hard-boiled egg.
Unctuous anchovy-based fish sauce (nam pya ye) – described by some as being as important to the Burmese as soy sauce is to the Chinese – and more in-your-mug sassy fermented fish paste (ngapi ye) undulate alongside soothing, nutritious split peas and yellow lentils and toothsome raw veggies. Burmese, at its best, is an elegant balance of heat and heartiness, its curries less complexly spiced than its Indian brethren and its salads harking to Thailand rather than China.
Authenticity is a lot to ask, even in a foodie-centric city like SF, where no Burmese restaurant demands that the diners eat with their hands or drink from a communal soup bowl as they might in Myanmar – nevertheless, instances of unique, street-level Burmese food can be found amid the fog belt we call home.
The swaggering rock star of the city’s Burmese joints has to be the wildly popular Burma Superstar, coming soon to a ‘burb or bedroom community near you. Industrial-moderne doppelgangers have sprung up in Alameda and Oakland, but the BS OG still gathers crowds huddled over the no-reservations waiting list, down Clement from Asian-fusion kindred B Star Bar in the misty, jacket-mandatory Inner Richmond, along the central artery of SF’s “other” Chinatown.
I remember Burma Superstar when it was still an eager wannabe, before it was picked up by Desmond Htunlin and wife Joycelyn Lee in 2001, dusted off, and given a sleek, chic Asian-contemporary makeover and a tweaked menu that focused on customer raves like Samusa Soup and earned the restaurant a Michelin mention.
When I saunter in on a weekday and ask the husky, Burmese-raised, ethnic-Chinese server Kenneth what the most authentic, and unusual, dish on the menu is, he’s at a loss beyond Samusa Soup and Tea Leaf Salad, even if the latter includes lettuce, unlike those found in his homeland. After some back and forth, he matter-of-factly offers the Burmese Style Curry as the closest to the genuine article. “It has some fish paste,” he says, adding that it still isn’t as assertive as the real dealie.
“Can I have the chef make it the way it might be in Burma?” I venture.
“No, no, no, no!” he says good-naturedly. “We don’t do that. Our customers wouldn’t order it! They wouldn’t eat it! They’d run away! We wouldn’t serve it! No way!” The head chef, who he refuses to name, brings in the crucial missing ingredients only for the staff meals. “The money for those ingredients comes out of her own pocket,” he explains patiently, as if speaking to an idiotic child. “That’s why she doesn’t use those ingredients.”
I settle for the Catfish Curry on the menu, and it’s unsettlingly good: rich, tomato-based, and more like a bouillabaisse or fish stew than a curry, with an eye-opening kick delivered by its peppers and sizable chunks of fresh, clean-tasting catfish. I suck the bones dry of the fatty, gelatinous flesh and gobble up the skin, which floats in the sauce like that of an onion.
The city’s old-school Burmese eatery, Mandalay, has been delivering the goods since 1984, just a few blocks away from Superstar’s sold-out mobs. Much has changed since I first checked out the more-spartan Mandalay in the early ‘90s: festive is the flavor of the Christmas ornaments and miniature disco balls dangling from the ceiling beneath pizzeria-ready faux grape vines, and an impressive, luck-pulling altar, where fruit and flower offerings are laid before a dramatically lit gold Buddha.
“Welcome back!” insists my waiter, wielding a piercing voice and a manic grin, while I mumble that I haven’t been back in about a decade. Authenticity is practically oozing off the menu, the walls, the lit-up palm tree, according to my server – and perhaps nothing more so than the Tea Leaf Salad, which he declares, “not Americanized” and lettuce-free. He also recommends the Chin Mong Jaw –sour vegetables sautéed with green chiles, prawns, and bamboo shoots: “Burmese people come from all over for that. No one else has that in the city!”
In keeping with Mandalay’s down-home razzle-dazzle, the Tea Leaf Salad is executed with panache: the next server takes me on a guided tour of the ingredients – the fermented imported Burmese tea leaves, lentils, sesame, peanuts, fried garlic and ground shrimp – before briskly tossing it into a mildly caffeinated pesto. I pick at it idly, wondering if I’ll get a chance to eat it with rice or at least a cracker.
The Chin Mong Jaw is much more likeable, its juicy, sizable shrimp and tart vegetables lined with cool cucumber slices. We try the creamy Mandalay Special Noodle, composed of flat rice noodles and mild coconut chicken given the heft of yellow pea powder and a dose of lime juice acidity, but most successful is the Balada, a roti-like pancake with more lift than crisp and an addictive curry dipping sauce;
Burma Superstar’s upstart competition, a few blocks down Clement in a space that once housed a quasi-upscale Hawaiian nosh-pit, is Pagan – named, like Mandalay, after an old-country metropolis, one that happens to be the home of a bajillion pagodas. Made over with gold walls decorated with embroidered tapestries and wood carvings, Pagan attempts to double its diners’ pleasure with both Burmese and Thai selections, boasting a $9.95 all-you-can-eat Burmese and Thai buffet for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday.
Still, the restaurant manages to pack in 53 Burmese dishes, including Chin Mong Jaw and Burmese-style curries ranging from scallops to okra and eggs to fish cake. For untrammeled authenticity, my server calls out the spicy water spinach, or ong choy, with dried shrimp; the spicy bitter gourds with shrimp; the Ong No Kaw Soi, or coconut chicken noodle soup; and the Moo Hin Nga, or catfish noodle soup – a must-slurp breakfast food in Burma, according to Aung Aung Taik’s Under the Golden Pagoda: The Best of Burmese Cooking. Just hold the fermented funk in a jar: “We use more dried shrimp than fish paste,” she confesses.
Regardless, the catfish noodle soup is utterly delicious: floating with carefully divided quadrants of cilantro, fried onion, and green and yellow lentil brittle, the rich, thick, and fishy broth is spicy rather than overwhelming. Slices of hard-boiled eggs, ground catfish, and onion are entangled in the thin, silvery rice noodles. I wolf it all down, completely full when the bitter gourd and shrimp arrives – cilantro scattered across frilly half-moons of gourd on a square ivory plate. The gourd is very bitter, in keeping with Burmese taste and a challenge for Western palates, though the biting taste grows on you when it’s couched in a fluffy cloud of rice.
The last stop to the real Myanmar takes me to the Tenderloin, where Chinese-Burmese restaurateur Dennis Lin had been serving up renowned turkey sandwiches at Larkin Express for several years before he changed the name of the sandwich shop to Burmese Kitchen, and broke out his Central Burma beloved recipes. A ringer for Ang Lee and pictured near the register with diner Gavin Newsom, Lin takes the time to explain each dish, all the while giving me his scoop on the city’s Burmese food (he thinks Mandalay is the most authentic yet appreciates Burma Superstar’s twist on tradition) and plying me with slightly bitter Burmese tea.
He dubs his prawn & sour leaf and golden tofu salads two of his most authentic dishes, and he couldn’t be more beautifully right on. The home-made yellow tofu in the salad is wonderfully silky and peanuty, resembling the custardy variations I’ve tasted in Kyoto’s Buddhist restaurants: it’s dotted with deep-fried shallots, cabbage, and turmeric, with a side of chopped cilantro, and leaves you with radiating, slow-growing heat. And the prawns and sour leaves are the best variation yet on Chin Mong Jaw, with an exquisite, layered sourness, bits of hot chile, and a mango pickle-like bite. There’s no stemming the tide of fish sauce here, and I’m ready to head back to the ‘Loin and try more – or less – authentic delectables on Burmese Kitchen’s 65-item-plus menu.
Bring your appetite, a readiness to tackle less-than-familiar sour and bitter taste sensations, and an adventurous spirit in order to delve into the lesser-known crannies of a Burmese menu at Burma Superstar, Mandalay, Pagan, or Burmese Kitchen. Try asking the server what the native Burmese staffers like to eat, and inquire about whether the chef might cook off-the-menu for you.