Mission of Burma: An Exploration of Burmese Food in San Francisco

by Zach Mann on January 10, 2016

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We Are Burmese If You Please — Jun 22, 2011

Pork with Pickled Mango - Burmese Kitchen - San Francisco, CA
The middle-class white person is a fickle eater. We can be picky about our special diets, about unfamiliar ingredients, about foods that our palates might insist are too greasy or too salty, and we can even balk at a menu’s linguistics. Just the other day I suggested to a friend that we have Pakistani cuisine for dinner. His pupils contracted and his pace slowed, the wary stance of a person at the edge of unfamiliarity, and he limply replied, Pakistani? It’s like Indian, I said, and my friend’s pace quickened, his confidence restored, again comfortable, because the word “Indian” in regards to food had long been inducted into the circle of trust.

“Oh, I’ve had that,” becomes, “You should try this,” and soon entire cityscapes on the rich side of the railroad tracks become inundated with Sushi and Thai restaurants with puns for names. Dim sum restaurants open outside Chinatown and thanks to takeout Chinese, the most common color of chicken in California is florescent orange, deep-fried. Meanwhile, Tibetan, Malaysian, Indonesian, Filipino, and other more fringe Asian restaurants eke out a living via their respective immigrant markets, unaware that they might become the next Pho, unexpectedly thrown into popularity because mainstream culture started recognizing items on the menu.

Burmese Kitchen - San Francisco, CA
Awhile ago, to some folks visiting San Francisco from Los Angeles, I suggested Burmese food for dinner. At once the expression on their faces subtly suggested nausea, as if a lump in their stomachs formed because they tried to digest the word “Burmese” itself, and failed. It was a defense mechanism against the dangers of exotic food, but then I qualified, it’s kind of like a combination between Indian, Chinese, and Thai food, and immediately they returned to ease. Maybe “Burmese” isn’t such a dirty word, they thought, unaware that in San Francisco, Burmese cuisine had already made the transition to the circle of trust. In SF “Burmese” might even be a buzzword, a resounding “You should try this!” each time a San Franciscan asks his smart phone, “What’s good to eat around here?”

Larkin Express was a moderately successful sandwich shop in the Civic Center area of San Francisco, surviving on the lunch break appetites of neighboring workforces with little fanfare but fewer complaints. Two years ago, the place was reborn, dressed in bamboo dividers and paper lanterns with the word “Burmese” on the awning out front like the meta data for a website, poaching page visits from cyber googlers and ogling passersby alike. Larkin Express the sandwich shop became Larkin Express Burmese Kitchen and continued down a path of moderate success.

Tea Leaf Salad - Burmese Kitchen - San Francisco, CA
What set Burmese Kitchen aside from most Burmese restaurants in the city was price. The modestly decorated café sat on the edge of the Tenderloin, where most folk don’t want to wait out on the sidewalk with the gusty winds and dusty panhandlers. The menu, a long list of five dollar entrees and eight dollar combo meals, reflected as much. The prices are rare not only by SF Burmese restaurant standards but San Francisco standards as a whole. Tea Leaf Salad, a featured item on most Burmese menus, is a ten-dollar appetizer at Burmese Kitchen’s competitors, but here on Larkin Street it’s a side dish, a spoonful of salad plopped into the smallest sector of a cafeteria plate.

Beef Curry - Burmese Kitchen - San Francisco, CA
Of all Burmese cuisine’s proposed culinary influences, Burmese Kitchen resembled Indian food the most. I’ve been to other Burmese restaurants in San Francisco with menus that seemed mostly Chinese, to places with “Burmese” on the awning that were nearly indistinguishable from Thai, and to the trendiest of the pack, run by white folk and serving cuisine so Pan-Asian it might be called Oriental. Each place seemed to define the word “Burmese” in its own terms, to the point where its meaning is truly in the eye of the leaseholder.

In San Francisco, just having the word “Burmese” in the name might be enough for good business. It’s a trending topic for a city heavily influenced by the wisdom of the internet. Maybe that’s why Larkin Express got a makeover — planting a savvy seed for a culinary bloom. Or maybe its cooks saw an opportunity to share their home cooking with the public, now that the public had welcomed their culture into the circle of edible trust. In either case, I was happy Larkin Express Burmese Kitchen existed. I love Indian food, I love Chinese food, I love Thai food, and I might even love Burmese food.

As for those who haven’t had the chance: You should try this.

A Dinner Too Far — Jul 7, 2011

When the number 38 bus reached Geary and Third late on a Saturday night, I didn’t have to look up to know I’m almost home. Every girl in a skirt and every guy in plaid disembarked on cue in a litany of pre-party diatribes en route to Buckshot, Inner Richmond’s destination for two-dollar beers and skee-ball. Moments later a much quieter bus, full of area residents, continued 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 was 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 were other Burmese restaurants spread throughout the city, the Richmond had a few, and each was a bright spot on a gray landscape — as long as it wasn’t too far west.

Mandalay Restaurant - San Francisco, CA
Of course, for most San Franciscans making the pilgrimage to my part of town, the word “Burmese” meant one thing, Burma Superstar, and flocks of white folk in business casual crowded 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 walked out of Burma Superstar two hours later with smiles on their faces, because the food was as delicious as the place is trendy, but there was still something a little off-putting about this longstanding San Francisco ritual: Mandalay Restaurant was 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 and die-hard fans are left.

Mango Salad - Mandalay Restaurant - San Francisco, CA Mango Chicken - Mandalay Restaurant - San Francisco, CA
Lamb Curry - Mandalay Restaurant - San Francisco, CA Smoked Pork - Mandalay Restaurant - San Francisco, CA Green Bean Seafood - Mandalay Restaurant - San Francisco, CA
Because there was such a lightning rod four blocks away, the resulting atmosphere of Mandalay Restaurant can feel a bit more local. The only thing brighter than the green and yellow of the California Street exterior were the tacky decorations and salesmanship of the hostess inside. Light-up palm trees and Christmas ornaments added a sloppy do-it-yourself aspect to the usual Buddhist tapestries, but despite the range of decor there was something tasteful and homey about the interior of Mandalay, and 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 was in full effect at Mandalay. The Samusas were Samosas. The Burmese Iced Tea was Thai Iced Tea. The hot-and-sour soup was indistinguishable from Chinese restaurants, and the “Mandalay Chicken” wasn’t just a relative of Orange Chicken; it was Orange Chicken.

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’m 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.

The Search for Little Burma — Jul 27, 2011

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. Soon there were just as many San Franciscans hunting dim sum in the Richmond or South Bay as there were tourists on Kearny.

Perhaps it’s swung too far and Chinatowns are underrated. Or perhaps it’s 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 lived in the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles County’s biggest Chinatown. The next largest population can be found spread throughout the Bay Area, living among the various Asian-American communities of San Francisco and South Bay. 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 represented demographics. The Richmond District had its fair share of Burmese churches and probably led California in per-capita Burmese dining establishments, but most of those restaurants had wait lists 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 was a little place on a big street in Daly City, removed from any kind of trend, a diner that just happened to serve Burmese food instead of American. The windows weren’t covered with “Best Of” posters and Zagat plaques, and most passersby would probably wrote 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 served greasy spoon Burmese cuisine. The bu tee kyaw, Burmese-fried squash, were like fast-food zucchini fries, but on a plate with dipping sauce. The texture of the fried egg noodles made me thing they were cooked on a frying pan rather than a wok, rubbery and weighed down by flavor. It was comfort food — uncomplicated.

Chicken Coconut Soup - Little Yangon - Daly City, CA
Nothing captured 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 undercut its richness, and the dish was my favorite of those I’ve tried at Little Yangon, a dark horse candidate for my favorite Burmese restaurant yet.

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

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

Burmese Two Ways — Jun 26, 2012

A handsome man in his mid-thirties walked into a coffee shop in Los Angeles. He wore designer sunglasses, with just the right amount of stubble, and a three-quarter-sleeve baseball shirt with a logo on the chest, a recognizable brand image from San Francisco that I’d seen many times: 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.

Burma Superstar
Burma Superstar - San Francisco, CA Rainbow Salad - Burma Superstar - San Francisco, CA
Okra Egg Curry - Burma Superstar - San Francisco, CA Homestyle Oxtail Claypot - Burma Superstar - San Francisco, CA
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 wasn’t better, dish for dish, than other Burmese restaurants in the city, and it was 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 was not unlike cocktail bars in S.F.: twelve dollar drinks in fancy interiors, which in the right circumstances can be an education in mixology. But at night, when the business tried to fit in too many people to possibly enjoy the setting, the tag of “too popular” was appropriate. It was the kind of crowded that gnawed away at the enjoyment of most customers. But it was 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.

House Noodles - Yamo - San Francisco, CA
There was something similar going on at a little diner in San Francisco’s Mission District called Yamo, a tiny hole in the wall that earned every definition of the term “hole-in-the-wall.” One counter extended 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) inhaled smoke all day, handled money with the same hands that handled food, lifted garbage bags over active stove-tops, and did every other little thing a diner does that adds to both its character and health code violations.

Despite its differences from Burma Superstar, Yamo was San Francisco’s second most popular Burmese restaurant, for the prices as much as for the food. Five dollar stir-fry dishes enticed 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 was neither rude nor hospitable, toiling in miserable conditions with grimaces on their faces.

During rush hour, Yamo was another exercise in the ridiculous, with long waits that negate the value of a lunch counter in the first place. It was also an insight into a hard day’s work. The ladies cooked the same things over and over with little more than the occasional grunt. I’d 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.

Potstickers - Yamo - San Francisco, CA Fish Curry - Yamo - San Francisco, CA
Yamo was a business like any other, and a more honest way to make money than most. Eating there was a way to be a part of that admirable exercise, and as a bonus it was not half bad.

The truth was, 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 were great eateries, with food that rated above its price tag and interesting dishes that you can’t always find. They were invaluable cornerstones of the San Francisco food scene. In many ways each restaurant was what the other was not, but they shared one thing: Their flaws are their successes.

I can get behind that. Just maybe only once a year.

From Here to Myanmar — Nov 11, 2011

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” was a saucy Thai-Indian dish at Larkin Express, but by the same name was Chinese stir-fry at the Mission’s Yamo.

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 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.

Burma Cafe - Daly City, CA
If there was 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 next door to a popular dim sum spot. The website cited 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 gave 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 were not earnest in their ploy to open and maintain a restaurant. However, on a superficial level, Burma Café gave off a pre-fab mantra. The interior was very clean, pleasant and comfortable. It was 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 was the farthest thing from Daly City’s other Burmese restaurant, Little Yangon, which was 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 did in a hilly Daly City shopping center.

Chicken Briyani - Burma Cafe - Daly City, CA
The menu at Burma Café was the only Burmese restaurant menu that hasn’t left me frowning at pictures or asking a waitress what to expect. The menu itself was short and included little else than the staples I’ve come to recognize across different restaurants in the Bay Area. It was almost as if Burma Café took items that are popular in other Burmese restaurants, simplified a multifaceted cuisine, and packaged the food culture into an easily consumed product.

Kabocha Pork - Burma Cafe - Daly City, CA Kabocha Pork - Burma Cafe - Daly City, CA
I have no idea how close Burma Café’s selections were 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.

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