This story is first in a series on Burmese food in San Francisco.
The middleclass white person is a fickle eater. We can be picky about our special diets, about unfamiliar ingredients, about foods that our palates might insist are too greasy or too salty, and we can even balk at a menu’s linguistics. Just the other day I suggested to a friend that we have Pakistani cuisine for dinner. His pupils contracted and his pace slowed, the wary stance of a person at the edge of unfamiliarity, and he limply replied, Pakistani? It’s like Indian, I said, and my friend’s pace quickened, his confidence restored, again comfortable, because the word “Indian” in regards to food had long been inducted into the circle of trust. “I don’t know if I’ll like that,” became, “Oh, I’ve had that before and I can confirm that it is tasty.”
“Oh, I’ve had that,” becomes, “You should try this,” and soon entire cityscapes on the rich side of the railroad tracks become inundated with Sushi and Thai restaurants with puns for names. Dim sum restaurants open outside Chinatown and thanks to takeout Chinese, the most common color of chicken in California is florescent orange, deep-fried. Meanwhile, Tibetan, Malaysian, Indonesian, Filipino and other more fringe Asian restaurants eke out a living via their respective immigrant markets, unaware that they might become the next Pho, unexpectedly thrown into popularity because mainstream, middleclass culture started recognizing items on the menu.
Awhile ago, to some folks visiting San Francisco from LA, I suggested Burmese food for dinner. At once the expression on their faces subtly suggested nausea, as if a lump in their stomachs formed because they tried to digest the word “Burmese” itself, and failed. It was a defense mechanism against the dangers of exotic food, but then I qualified, it’s kind of like a combination between Indian, Chinese and Thai food, and immediately they returned to ease. Maybe “Burmese” isn’t such a dirty word, they thought, unaware that in San Francisco, Burmese cuisine had already made the transition to the circle of trust. In SF “Burmese” might even be a buzzword, a resounding “You should try this!” each time a San Franciscan asks his smart phone, “What’s good to eat around here?”
Larkin Express was a moderately successful sandwich shop in the Civic Center area of San Francisco, surviving on the lunch break appetites of neighboring workforces with little fanfare but fewer complaints. Two years ago, the place was reborn, dressed in bamboo dividers and paper lanterns with the word “Burmese” on the awning out front like the meta data for a website, poaching page visits from cyber googlers and ogling passersby alike. Larkin Express the sandwich shop became Larkin Express Burmese Kitchen and continued down a path of moderate success.
What sets Burmese Kitchen aside from most Burmese restaurants in the city is price. The modestly decorated café sits on the edge of the Tenderloin, where the middle-class folk don’t want to wait out on the sidewalk with the gusty winds and dusty panhandlers. The menu, a long list of five dollar entrees and eight dollar combo meals, reflects as much. The prices are rare not only by Burmese standards but San Francisco standards as a whole. Tea Leaf Salad, a featured item on most Burmese menus, is a ten dollar appetizer at Burmese Kitchen’s competitors, but here on Larkin St. it’s a side dish, a spoonful of salad plopped into the smallest sector of a cafeteria plate. Maybe it isn’t as refined as one of the ten dollar versions. Maybe there is less of an epicurean balance between the crunchy bites of peanuts, garlic, dried shrimp, sesame seeds, beans, cabbage, tomatoes and lemons, but it’s still one heck of a delicious pile of flavor next to another.
Overall Burmese Kitchen’s fare gives the impression of fast food: greasy sauces, bold in flavor, smothering dry, tasteless meat. Fortunately the earthy, multi-faceted sauces have enough depth of flavor to cover up the flaws of the pork and beef in the pictured curries. Thinner than the kind of stuff usually cradled by naan, the curries’ flavors have a similar boldness to each bite and the same greasy cling to each morsel of meat. Tangy, pickled vegetables and fruit seize the occasional bite, accenting the otherwise sweet, savory and spicy flavors.
Of all its proposed culinary influences, Burmese Kitchen resembles Indian food the most, at least to me. I’ve been to other Burmese restaurants in San Francisco with menus that seemed mostly Chinese, to places with “Burmese” on the awning that were nearly indistinguishable from Thai, and to the trendiest of the pack, run by white folk and serving cuisine so Pan-Asian it might be called Oriental. Each place seems to define the word “Burmese” in its own terms, to the point where its meaning is truly in the eye of the leaseholder.
In San Francisco, just having the word “Burmese” in the name might be enough for good business. It’s a trending topic for a city heavily influenced by the wisdom of the internet. Maybe that’s why Larkin Express got a makeover – planting a savvy seed for a culinary bloom. Or maybe its cooks saw an opportunity to share their home cooking with the public, now that the public had welcomed their culture into the circle of edible trust. In either case, I’m happy Larkin Express Burmese Kitchen exists. I love Indian food, I love Chinese food, I love Thai food, and I might even love Burmese food.
As for those who haven’t had the chance: You should try this.
Larkin Express Burmese Kitchen
452 Larkin St
San Francisco, CA 94102
The Eaten Path: Mission of Burma SF
June 22, 2011: Burmese Kitchen (Larkin Express)
July 7, 2011: Mandalay Restaurant
July 27, 2011: Little Yangon
November 11, 2011: Burma Café
June 25, 2012: Burma Superstar & Yamo