The Search for Little Burma

by Zach Mann on July 27, 2011

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This story is third in a series on Burmese food in San Francisco.

Fried Noodles - Little Yangon - Daly City, CA
When tourists come to San Francisco, they eat Chinese food in Chinatown. There’s nothing wrong with that. Chinatown is a cool place, and there’s good food there.

However, it isn’t too bold to claim that the best Chinese food in the Bay Area is not in SF’s Chinatown. That opinion is old hat by now. The nomenclature of neighborhoods is out of date, unable to roam across cities like their namesake demographics. Los Angeles’ Chinatown cannot compare to San Gabriel Valley, and I wonder, is Manhattan’s Gangs of New York playground still fending off Flushing in the eyes of eat-geeks? Nowadays there are just as many San Franciscans hunting dim sum in the Richmond or South Bay as there are tourists on Kearny.

Perhaps it’s swung too far and Chinatowns are underrated. Or perhaps it’s much more complicated than that, because there’s rarely a choice on the form of America to differentiate between Taiwanese, Mainland Chinese, and Hong Kong Chinese. The nomenclature of centuries-old city planning never accounted for that. The Bay Area is nearly one quarter Chinese, but that’s counting immigrants from Hong Kong. It’s counting folks from Taiwan. And it’s counting the quickly growing Burmese population in California.

Little Yangon - Daly City, CA Little Yangon - Daly City, CA
Where is Little Burma? The highest percentage of Burmese-Americans live in the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles County’s biggest Chinatown. The next largest population can be found spread throughout the Bay Area, untraceably living amongst the various Asian-American communities of San Francisco and South Bay. If there’s one neighborhood more Burmese than another, I haven’t discovered it, and I wonder if we’re waiting for some food writer to nickname a spatter pattern of restaurants “Little Burma”, because in the end, it’s always food that decides.

Unfortunately in the Bay Area, trendy Burmese restaurants outnumber the regular, family-run eateries that consistently represent demographics. The Richmond District has its fair share of Burmese churches and probably leads California in per-capita Burmese dining establishments, but most of those restaurants have waitlists full of names that aren’t Burmese. Despite that, I might have still guessed that the Inner Richmond deserved the nickname “Little Burma” more than any other neighborhood. I would have, until I stepped into Little Yangon.

Fried Squash - Little Yangon - Daly City, CA
Of all the Burmese restaurants I’ve stepped into since moving to San Francisco, Little Yangon has put me the most at ease. It’s a little place on a big street in Daly City, removed from any kind of trend, a diner that just happens to serve Burmese food instead of American. The windows aren’t covered with “Best Of” posters and Zagat plaques, and most passersby would probably write it off as rather mundane. In the Burmese restaurant scene of the Bay Area, that in itself might be enough to make it special.

Little Yangon serves greasy spoon Burmese cuisine. The bu tee kyaw, Burmese-fried squash, are like zucchini fries found at late-night snacks stops ala Pasadena’s Lucky Boy, but on a plate with dipping sauce. The texture of the fried egg noodles makes me thing they were cooked on a frying pan rather than a wok, rubbery and weighed down by flavor. It’s comfort food, not unlike an Okinawan diner I loved in Honolulu – delicious and uncomplicated.

Chicken Coconut Soup - Little Yangon - Daly City, CA
Nothing captures this comfort more than creamy Ohn Noh Kaw Swe, a coconut-based, chicken noodle soup that is as thick, sweet and rich as any chowder. The lemon undercuts its richness, and the dish is my favorite of those I’ve tried at Little Yangon, a dark horse candidate for my favorite Burmese restaurant yet.

Little Yangon is not the only Burmese restaurant in Daly City, but for a neighborhood that is nearly fifty-percent Filipino, “Little Burma” hardly seems appropriate. Maybe there are other parts of South Bay more qualified, and maybe there aren’t. After eating at Little Yangon, I know for certain that the Richmond District qualifies not at all. If a neighborhood is going to earn the honor of representing any ethnic group, even a sub-group, it needs at least one mom-and-pop, comfort-food diner of the cuisine in question.

Heck, any neighborhood could stand to have a Little Yangon.

Little Yangon
6318 Mission St
Daly City, CA 94014

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

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