Burmese food has been an undeserved straggler in the American hierarchy of Asian cuisines; in New York City, as far as I can tell, we only have one dedicated Burmese restaurant. But things are slowly changing as Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, has finally opened to foreign tourists, and "Burma: Rivers of Flavor," a deeply researched and sumptuously photographed cookbook by Naomi Duguid, has made the wider world more conscious of the cuisine, which mixes influences of China, India and Thailand with traditions from its own varied ethnic groups.
In the Bay Area, however, Burmese food has long been a known quantity. With plenty of character and low prices, it's also perfect for a traveler on a budget. So during my recent three-day shopping "spree" in San Francisco, I went on an all-Burmese diet.
This was hardly a scientific or thorough examination; my choice of places was mainly based on where I was when I got hungry. That said, here is a selection of worthwhile spots. (I'm sure I missed out on some gems, so leave your suggestions in the comments area below.)
Pagan: This was my first and favorite stop. I went with my newlywed friends Suzanne Kim and Eric Neis, who had been hosting me at their house in the Marin town of Tiburon and were thus due a meal as thanks. (A cheap meal, of course.)
The exterior at Pagan, which is in the Outer Richmond neighborhood, is rather slapdash -- a hand-painted maroon-on-yellow sign wrapping around what looks like a ranch house. But they take their food seriously. Our waiter -- who had patiently taken us through the menu to suggest the most traditional Burmese dishes (there are also Thai options) -- created a tea leaf salad before our eyes, tossing the ingredients together tableside with modest flourish, a nice touch for a bargain restaurant. It was also presentation with a purpose, keeping the mushy, fermented tea leaves apart, until the last minute, from the crunchy peanuts and sesame seeds, the crisp lettuce, the ground shrimp, the punch of fried garlic bits and the zing of lime. This was not something you could create in a do-it-yourself-salad bar if you tried.
On our waiter's advice, we also had pumpkin pork stew, a simple and satisfying dish with slow-cooked chunks of pork and soft chunks of squash. But our favorite was the spicy eggplant and ground shrimp -- the thin slices of eggplant, just slightly crisp and covered with little clumps of paste our waiter said was made of tomato, onion, and "special spices." Whatever it was, I wanted a bottle.
Little Yangon: I had pressed the waiter at Pagan for his other favorite Burmese restaurants. He suggested this Daly City spot, named after the country's largest city. Again, Suzanne and Eric accompanied. It was immediately obvious this was a restaurant clearly aimed at the Burmese community: Burmese products, as well as the California-based Mandalay Gazette, a Burmese-language newspaper, were for sale.
Sitting at a table right behind us was a woman who identified herself as the aunt of the owner, and seemed to have little better to do, thankfully, than treat us like she was our aunt, bringing us extra napkins and rice. The dish we liked the best was the spicy fried pork -- shredded, crunchy and with a kick. And a bit of courage paid off with a dish called "pork intestines, tongue and heart"; the offal got a sweet, tangy soak in a sauce made from tamarind powder that rendered it much more palatable than it sounded. Our Burmese aunt also explained and recommended some desserts, including shwe kyi, sweet, soft parallelograms made of cream of wheat and coconut milk, and faluda, reminiscent of an ice cream float.
Burmese Kitchen: Located in the Tenderloin district, this one didn't have as much personality as the other two -- it struck me as a more workaday downtown lunch spot, a bit dark and gloomy. But the prices were right. By this time I had gotten a bit more daring and ordered the shrimp with sour leaf ($7.50), a very Burmese ingredient that I would euphemistically describe as "interesting" -- in other words, a great choice to encourage your friend to order so you can try it. Alas, I was alone this time. So after separating out and eating the few shrimp, I also ordered a $5.95 coconut chicken noodle soup, a classic I'd been eyeing in the other restaurants, opting to invest 50 cents to have its crunch level upgraded with fried split peas.
Burma Superstar: True to its name, this three-branch chain is the most ballyhooed of the city's Burmese restaurants. But one look at the menu (at its Oakland location, where I stopped after visiting next-door Berkeley) and I almost didn't go in. Most dishes were well above $10, generally my cut-off; the lamb chili a friend had ordered me to try was $14.95, and they also had some pricey cocktails. But lunch specials -- three choices of full meals for $10 or $11 -- saved the day. I got pork curry -- big, tender chunks again, this time in a gentle curry -- with coconut rice and a heap of salad made from pickled mango mixed with cabbage, fried and raw onions and cucumber packing a nice crunch. The rest of the menu had me drooling, so before I was tempted to order more, I made my getaway.
I was glad I hadn't offered to take Suzanne and Eric here -- this was not the place I should be taking people to lunch, though it sure would be a great place to be taken.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 17, 2013 2:00 PM