This story is fifth and last in a series on Burmese food in San Francisco.
I’ve lived in Santa Monica a week now. Yet the other day, as I sat in a coffee shop, in walked a handsome man in his mid-thirties, designer sunglasses, with just the right amount of stubble, wearing a three-quarter-sleeve baseball shirt with a logo on the chest, a recognizable brand image from San Francisco that I’d grown familiar with over the last couple years: Burma Superstar.
This wasn’t surprising. Burma Superstar is that kind of place.
During my two years in San Francisco, upon meeting someone new and answering the inevitable question where-do-you-live, invariably the response to “Inner Richmond” would be: “Oh, I love that Burmese restaurant.” It’s indeed been the neighborhood’s most famous landmark since 1992.
I enjoyed my evenings across the street, writing in the corner of Blue Danube Coffee House, watching the twenty-person pileup that formed in front of Burma Superstar on a nightly basis, and listening to the people who had crossed the street to Blue Danube to have a beer while they waited, saying things like: This is ridiculous. Can you believe that host? This better be F-ing amazing.
When finally we tried it ourselves, we called ahead to put our name on the waiting list. Their estimate: two-three hours. And we thought: Holy shit. This better be F-ing amazing.
Yes, Burma Superstar is delicious, a hedonistic night out without a $$$ price tag or a snobby waiter. The taste of the food is close enough to what we’re used to while being distinct enough to make us think: I like this. This is different. Lychee sangrias and samusas aren’t in my usual stable of food intake, and I wish they were.
The Rainbow Salad, for instance, is a house favorite, a 22-ingredient hodgepodge of other Burmese salads that tastes like a noodle ceviche. It’s garlicky and citrus-y, less intense than the Mango Salad at Mandalay and less foreign in texture than the average tea leaf salad. The rest of the menu follows a similar formula, altering Burmese dishes – including an Oxtail Claypot with roasted daikon, reminiscent of both Irish Beef Stew and a dish from Portland’s Pok Pok Thai – for the San Franciscan taste. Even I have to admit that Burma Superstar’s Okra Egg Curry is my favorite rendition of the Burmese dish I’ve found.
After a couple visits, I’m confident that most people walk away from Burma Superstar with a smile in their stomachs, but that doesn’t mean the place isn’t ridiculous. The entire menu isn’t better, dish for dish, than other Burmese restaurants in the city, and it’s hard not to notice that you’re sitting at a table most restaurants wouldn’t dare include, squeezed between the bathroom door and the bussing station.
It’s not unlike cocktail bars in S.F.: twelve dollar drinks in fancy interiors, which in the right circumstances (Alembic or Smuggler’s Cove at five in the afternoon, for instance) can be an education in mixology. But at night, when the business tries to fit in too many people to possibly enjoy the setting, the tag of “too popular” is appropriate. It’s the kind of crowded that gnaws away at the enjoyment of most customers. But it’s also the kind of hype-realization that others might enjoy, even if that means waiting outside Burma Superstar for three hours to sit behind a bathroom door.
There’s something similar going on at a little diner in San Francisco’s Mission District called Yamo, a tiny hole in the wall that earns every definition of the term “hole-in-the-wall.” One counter extends from Eighteenth Street to the back of the room, with just enough space for eight people on one side and the kitchen on the other. The cooks (middle-aged Burmese women) inhale smoke all day, handle money with the same hands that handle food, lift garbage bags over active stovetops and do every other little thing a diner does that adds to both its character and health code violations.
Despite its differences from Burma Superstar, Yamo is San Francisco’s second most popular Burmese restaurant, for the prices as much as for the food. Five dollar stir-fry dishes entice long lines of skinny, white Mission dwellers with messenger bags and iPhones, braving long waits and muggy claustrophobia for an inexpensive meal. The Yamo kitchen staff is neither rude nor hospitable, toiling in miserable conditions with grimaces on their faces.
During rush hour, Yamo is another exercise in the ridiculous, with long waits that negate the value of a lunch counter in the first place. It’s also an insight into a hard day’s work. The ladies cook the same things over and over with little more than the occasional grunt. I’ve never felt like a guest sitting at that counter, just another five dollar bill waiting to be turned over for the next one. I suppose that’s because there’s always been a “next one” waiting.
Yamo is a business like any other, and a more honest way to make money than most. Eating there is a way to be a part of that admirable exercise, and as a bonus it’s not half bad. The noodles are springy. The tea leaf salad is as good as any, and the stir-fries all earn their price tags. It’s the type of place I would go to all the time, if it were relatively empty and nearby.
The truth is, if you asked a San Franciscan what her favorite Burmese restaurant is, she would probably respond with one or the other: Burma Superstar or Yamo. Both are great eateries, with food that rates above its price tag and interesting dishes that you can’t always find. They’re invaluable cornerstones of the San Francisco food scene. In many ways each restaurant is what the other isn’t, but they share one thing: Their flaws are their successes.
I can get behind that. Just maybe only once a year.
309 Clement St
San Francisco, CA 94118
3406 18th St
San Francisco, CA 94110
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