This story is fourth in a series on Burmese food in San Francisco.
What is Burmese cuisine?
The question is problematic. I’ve been asking it for over a year, and I know as little about the topic now as I did when I first moved to San Francisco. Something as straight forward as “beef curry” is a saucy Thai-Indian dish at Larkin Express, but by the same name is Chinese stir-fry at the Mission’s Yamo. Meanwhile, the originating region of Myanmar might be even less homogenized, or different altogether, from what I’ve gleaned from the internet.
There’s an uncanny valley (or ocean) between any cuisine as portrayed on menus in America and the original food culture from whence the immigrants immigrated. There’s error in proportion, suggesting that people in Japan are always eating ramen and sushi. And there’s error in name; Pad Thai is rarely found in restaurants in Thailand, Fresh Mex is a California invention, and Caesar salad was first tossed together by a someone named Caesar in San Diego. Not only is the idea of Burmese cuisine inconsistent in San Francisco, it also probably wouldn’t be recognized by its extended family back in Myanmar.
If there is a standardized definition of American Burmese food in San Francisco, it would be Burma Café in Daly City. The double-dollar-sign restaurant opened seemingly overnight in 2010, a brightly painted building that stands out next door to a popular dim sum spot. The website cites its reason for existing as “…to serve a large demand for Burmese food in Daly City,” and for the most part, that’s the impression Burma Café instills in all first comers. This is a new Burmese restaurant. Burmese cuisine is hot right now. We are fulfilling a quota.
I don’t mean that the Burmese American owners are not earnest in their ploy to open and maintain a restaurant. However, on a superficial level, Burma Café gives off a pre-fab mantra. The interior is very clean, pleasant and comfortable. It’s stocked with easy-on-the-eyes, abstract decorations and interior design, as if the whole restaurant were purchased as a finished set, like a completed room in Ikea. In other words, it’s the farthest thing from Daly City’s other Burmese restaurant, Little Yangon, which is weathered by neighborhood history and personality. Whereas Little Yangon couldn’t exist anywhere else, Burma Café would look the same in a mall in Chicago as it does in a hilly Daly City shopping center.
The menu at Burma Café is the only Burmese restaurant menu that hasn’t left me frowning at pictures or asking a waitress what to expect. The menu itself is short and includes little else than the staples I’ve come to recognize across different restaurants in the Bay Area. It’s almost as if Burma Café takes items that are popular in other Burmese restaurants, simplifies a multifaceted cuisine and packages the food culture into an easily consumed product.
Standardized or not, Burma Café cooks up delicious food. The Chicken Briyani is a side that can double as a main dish, a Jumbalaya of Asian flavors. Rice is cooked in a clay pot with cashews, onions, raisins, cinnamon, cardamom and generous morsels of fatty, flavorful chicken. On its own the Briyani is a tad too salty, but mixed with sweet curry dishes the spices round out just right. One of those sweet spoon-able entrees is Kabocha Pork, a slow-cooked stew that is well-spiced with ginger and dominated by the taste of candied squash. It isn’t perfect; the pork is a little tough and the kabocha a little dry; but Burma Café isn’t trying to be the best Burmese restaurant in the Bay. It’s just filling a quota.
I have no idea how close Burma Café’s selections are to the native cuisine of Myanmar. In fact, I don’t know if the same ingredients would be found in Burmese restaurants outside of the Bay Area. I’m not sure what goes on in the minds of Burmese American restaurant owners when the menu is put together, how much of it is designed to meet expectations of local diners, and if it feels at all disloyal when they add lettuce to their Tea Leaf Salad.
The end result is a menu and a style of food that originates from the Myanmar region, but has been cultivated many times since. It’s been refracted by the palates of a different population of restaurant patrons, of non-Burmese, and even of the Burmese American immigrants whose cultural identity is ever changing, who themselves might not know much about Myanmar anymore.
The food has been simplified to make it easier to serve and to maximize profit. It’s been watered down and spiced back up and changed a little bit here and there, an evolution of culture and taste and culinary ritual. The cuisine’s journey has been longer than the original trip from Myanmar to California. Of course it has changed. It’s not inauthentic. It’s just another chapter in the story of a meal.
63 St. Francis Sq.
Daly City, CA 94015
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