This post is retrospective (not a ranking) on six Burmese restaurants in San Francisco. Since completing the series, Zach has left the Bay Area for the broader pastures of Los Angeles, where he continues to write for The Eaten Path.
“You guys doing anything exciting tonight?”
“Just dinner at Burma Superstar,” I said.
“That is exciting,” she responded.
Indeed, for both good and bad reasons, dinner at Burma Superstar is an evening spent. Nobody just pops in for a meal. Calendars are cleared. “Dinner” is also calling hours ahead, is also shopping at Clement Street boutiques or Green Apple Books, is also a beer at Blue Danube across the street with a cellphone at the ready.
Burma Superstar is not my favorite in the Bay Area, but when visiting friends requested Burmese cuisine, the flagship destination made the most sense, because despite all the hoopla required, Burma Superstar still might be the most accessible restaurant of its kind; there are locations on both sides of the bay, the Tea Leaf Salad can be ordered vegetarian and the menu includes non-Burmese items for pickier eaters. Or as an older gentleman beside our table said with relief upon trying his food, “Oh, cool, it tastes like Panda Express.” In other words, it’s easy.
And yet, Burma Superstar is definitely a hassle. As I waited in line for the bathroom, trying and failing to stay out of the personal space of the adjacent tables, I wondered; after two years living in S.F. and trying different Burmese restaurants, why would I choose to return to this one? The fact that most of the food tastes pretty great* becomes either antidote or afterthought to a stressful evening.
*It’s difficult to go wrong on the menu, as long as you order enough Tea Leaf Salad. Beware simple stir-fry dishes; they are as simple as they sound.
Likewise, comfort is no concern of Yamo, a Burmese greasy spoon in the Mission District as dissimilar to Burma Superstar as possible – while remaining no less San Franciscan. In fact, if it were possible to conceive a restaurant that combined the two, that mythical creature might encapsulate “San Francisco dining” to its furthest symbolic definition. Both eateries demonstrate how the city spares no inconvenience in its sacrifice to the cult of niche eating experiences. Both adjacent sidewalks mark the S.F. landscape with their crowds of waiting masses, and both have done so long enough to be neighborhood institutions.
If Burma Superstar depends on its food to makeup for its faults, Yamo leans on its cost. That the food at Yamo can be termed delicious* is not so much a testament to culinary accomplishment as it is to the rarity of decent greasy spoons in San Francisco. Or perhaps it’s just that small price tags are the best deodorant.
*I’ve found Yamo’s food to be at its best when noodles are combined with either curry or soup. When ordering curry, however, don’t expect any sauce or stew to be involved.
Burmese Kitchen (Larkin Express)
What sets Yamo’s menu apart from other Burmese restaurants, aside from the five dollar ceiling, is the muted nature of the “Burmese” qualifier. Whereas Yamo might see the same success serving only Chinese food, Burma Superstar’s menu spares no opportunity to highlight Burmese specialities and Food Network-spotlighted dishes. Larkin Express Burmese Kitchen aspires to the latter.
In many ways, Larkin Express is a compromise between the city’s two most popular Burmese spots. The fare is a step above and a couple bucks more than Yamo while lacking the polish of Burma Superstar. That Larkin Express doesn’t share its colleague’s successes has more to do with its Civic Center location than its food-to-price ratio, a fate shared by many establishments in the underrated food meccas around the Tenderloin (see: Little Saigon and “Tandoor”-loin).
While the lunch-counter turned “Burmese Kitchen” is doomed to always receive Yelp! reviews comparing it to its more famous counterparts, Larkin Express deserves to at least stand on its own as a more comfortable, and more stew-based*, alternative to Yamo.
*Burmese Kitchen’s curries are closer to Indian curry than other Burmese restaurants. Expect greasy and earthy flavors, and expect the vegetarian and fish dishes to be better than the pork and beef dishes.
Burma Superstar’s only real competitor is only a few blocks away in the Richmond District. The first Burmese restaurant in San Francisco remains a popular dinner choice amongst the informed, but a forgotten trendsetter in the San Francisco restaurant scene. Mandalay Restaurant is a rare case in a city where the hype usually overshoots the topic of discussion. Indeed, there is a feeling of “just right”-ness at my second-favorite Burmese restaurant*.
With a price tag and polish similar to the superstar down the road, Mandalay is a nice dinner out without having to jump through the necessary hoops on Clement Street. Its faults may be similar to Larkin Express’; even four blocks farther than Burma Superstar might be too far from the right bus-lines and the right bars.
*Nothing has disappointed me at Mandalay, especially not the lunch combos. Tip: any meal is better when you to order Mandalay Special Noodle for the table.
Far from any of the right bus-lines is Daly City, but car-owners on the peninsula can find more Burmese food at the gate to San Francisco. A quick glance at Yelp! stars will bring visitors to Burma Cafe, a young restaurant that takes Larkin Express’ hopeful use of the “Burmese” tag to a strip mall with plenty of parking. The clean and polite dining spot is an inoffensive alternative to stress-inducing Burmese dinners in San Francisco*.
There isn’t much else to say about Burma Cafe, just as there isn’t much dialogue surrounding Mandalay. The latter has a rich history. The former might get there in a couple decades, but until then Burma Cafe stands as a threat to the Bay Area as what Burmese food might look like if it becomes as ubiquitous as Thai Food in L.A.
Dialogue is what led me to choose Burma Superstar, over other worthwhile options, when my friends asked to go to a Burmese restaurant in December 2012. As is self-evident over the course of this guide, there’s just more to say about Burma Superstar than other similar restaurants in the city, even when the discussion rarely concerns the food. One could argue that Burma Cafe, not Burma Superstar, is the most accessible Burmese restaurant in the Bay Area. But nobody can argue which is the more interesting.
Likewise, it’s no mystery why Burma Superstar attracts more business than the also tasty Mandalay Restaurant. Eating out in San Francisco is less and less about which restaurant has the best food. It’s about which restaurant is more likely to earn its own hashtag on Twitter.
*Burma Cafe’s curries are hit and miss, but the Chicken Briyani is a safe way to hedge your bets.
My favorite Burmese restaurant in the Bay Area is also in Daly City. It’s not the best Burmese restaurant. Indeed, its Yelp! stars will most likely remain less impressive than San Francisco’s other Burmese options. The service will be slow. The tabletops will be dirty. The decor will fall short. The food will be inconsistent. The storefront will blend into the Mission Street block as potential customers drive by unawares.
The big irony regarding Burmese food in San Francisco is that Burmese cuisine isn’t so unique that it deserves its tragically hip status in this sector of the country. Burmese cuisine isn’t shocking enough that it can live up to the hype and hoopla. Burmese cuisine is a comfort food that somehow found itself abuzz in a city that serves it up in uncomfortable places.
Little Yangon is my favorite Burmese restaurant because it doesn’t treat Burmese food as an oddity. At Little Yangon, Burmese food is simply comfort food*. Maybe it’s a little plain. Maybe it’s not as interesting, not as San Franciscan. Maybe that’s the point. Food doesn’t always have to be a dialogue.
*The chicken coconut soup personifies just how comfortable Burmese food can be. Full disclosure: you can rarely go wrong ordering chicken coconut or fish chowder soup at any Burmese restaurant. I just prefer to eat it at Little Yangon.
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