This story is second in a series on Burmese food in San Francisco.
When the number 38 bus reaches Geary and Third late on a Saturday night, I don’t have to look up to know I’m almost home. Every girl in a skirt and every guy in plaid disembarks on cue in a litany of pre-party diatribes en route to Buckshot, Inner Richmond’s only destination for two-dollar beers and skee-ball. Moments later a much quieter bus, full of older homebodies like me, continues west into the dreary, fog-laden land between Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, where the biggest party animals are sixty-somethings arguing about local sports nostalgia.
Geary and Third is also the last relevant stop for a different kind of westbound San Franciscan, for a different reason. Destination dinners in the Inner Richmond tend to have a theme, and all folks twenty-five and older from all ends of the peninsula have deemed it worth their time to visit Clement Street for Burmese food. Deservedly or not, it’s become a feature of the neighborhood. Even though there are other Burmese restaurants spread throughout the city, the Richmond has a few, and each is a bright spot on a gray landscape – as long as it isn’t too far west.
Of course, for most San Franciscans making the pilgrimage to my part of town, the word “Burmese” means one thing; Burma Superstar; and flocks of white folk in business casual crowd around the entrance of the Clement Street hotspot, waiting upwards of three hours to sit within elbow distance of the bathroom and another table. Those same folk walk out of Burma Superstar two hours later with smiles on their faces, because the food really is as delicious as the place is trendy, but there’s still something a little off-putting about this longstanding San Francisco ritual: Mandalay Restaurant is only four blocks away.
The Inner Richmond is ground zero for SF’s Burmese craze. Burma Superstar hit the ground running in 1992, leading to follow-up locations in Berkeley and Alameda, all but branding the trend with its catchy name and eclipsing another successful Burmese restaurant in the area, and one that was already eight years old before a superstar arrived on the scene. Mandalay Restaurant, the original Burmese restaurant in the city, is only one block north of Clement Street, but maybe it’s one bus stop too far. In that short distance the fog gets thicker, the weather gets colder and the amount of people in the mood for tea leaf salad thins until only residents of the area, diehard fans and older homebodies are left.
Because there’s such a lightning rod four blocks away, the resulting atmosphere of Mandalay Restaurant feels a bit more local. The only thing brighter than the green and yellow of the California Street exterior are the tacky decorations and salesmanship of the hostess inside. Light-up palm trees and Christmas ornaments add a sloppy do-it-yourself aspect to the usual Buddhist tapestries, but despite the range of decor there is something tasteful and homey about the interior of Mandalay, and there’s even something elegant to the plating and preparation of the food.
The food here is different from the kinds of meals found at Larkin Express. The theory that Burmese cuisine is a medley of Thai, Chinese and Indian influences is in full effect at Mandalay. The Samusas are basically Samosas. The Burmese Iced Tea is basically Thai Iced Tea. The hot-and-sour soup is indistinguishable from Chinese restaurants, and the “Mandalay Chicken” isn’t just a relative of Orange Chicken; it is Orange Chicken. In fact, compared to other Burmese restaurants I’ve tried thus far, Mandalay seems to lean strongest toward Chinese influence than any other.
That said, there’s no lack of uniquely Burmese items on the menu, including a number of traditional salads and noodle dishes. One highlight is the Mandalay Special Noodle (not pictured), a medley of ingredients that are tossed tableside instead of blended into a sauce or flipped on a wok into a homogenous stir fry. The preparation of dishes as deconstructed, minced and tossed seems to be a common characteristic, and the most obvious examples are the salads, mixtures of fruits, roots, leaves and nuts that can resemble anything from coleslaw to trail mix.The citrus and spices in Mandalay’s salads remind me of poke or ceviche, spicy and tart, but these salads take it one step further. There is an earthiness and bitterness to each bite, elevating popular appetizers to the superstars of meals.
If salad is the obvious common denominator between the wide range of restaurants that make up San Francisco’s Burmese scene, second place goes to the mango. Pickled, fried or served like ceviche, the mango seems to be the king of fruits in the Burmese food chain. Mandalay Restaurant is no different, and the Mango Salad is delicious proof.
The meat, whether it’s chicken, lamb, pork or beef, has never failed to be juicy and done right by its spicy and tangy accompaniment. The green beans, shrimp and squid have great crisp and snap. The homemade lemonades, the complimentary mango pudding, the tea leaf salad… everything I’ve tried at Mandalay has been great, which is why it might be my favorite Burmese restaurant yet. The prices are a bit cheaper than Burma Superstar’s down the street, but dinners can range from fifteen to twenty-five bucks, assuming an order of salad is involved – a meal at Mandalay is still too pricey for everyday consumption. Outside of the everyday, Mandalay Restaurant should be on the radar of anyone who likes Burmese food.
Not that Mandalay isn’t already on plenty radars, because dinners at the bright green and yellow restaurant require reservations and waits, too. The waits just tend to be closer to ten minutes than three hours. I’m not suggesting that those folks disembarking the bus at Geary and Third should walk the four extra blocks to Mandalay, and I’m not even suggesting that Mandalay is better than Burma Superstar. They are different kinds of restaurants, and they don’t need to be compared simply because they share the same word on the awning.
I am suggesting that my neighborhood is worth venturing into past Geary and Third, and I am suggesting, that when the words “Burmese” and “Inner Richmond” are spoken in the same sentence, it shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion which restaurant is being talked about.
4344 California St
San Francisco, CA 94118
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