A friendly spot that blends the best of Indian and Southeast Asian cooking
DINE Burma isn't quite as isolated as North Korea, but it did take a new name about 20 years ago and isn't exactly on the beaten path these days. Since I am an admirer of David Lean's 1957 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, starring Alec Guinness, I still think of that faraway land as Burma, not Mynanmar.
Even under authoritarian military rule, Burma/Myanmar has no real hope of matching North Korea in dreadfulness since, if nothing else, it has better food. You can find nice examples of Burmese cooking at a pair of longtime restaurants just a few blocks from each other in the Inner Richmond — Burma Superstar and Mandalay — but last year saw the arrival of a new entrant, Burmese Kitchen, a reinvented deli along a run of Larkin Street from the Civic Center to Geary densely populated with Asian restaurants.
Burmese cooking is distinctive, at least to this occidental person, in its blending of the effects of the southeast Asian peninsula and Indian subcontinent. So you will find ong no kau swer ($5.50), a marvelous soup based on coconut milk with diced chicken and fat wheat noodles. It's as if a bowl of udon and tom kha gai had an impetuous liaison and produced, as a love child, an east Asian version of chicken-noodle soup.
On the other hand, you have a dish like chicken chana dal ($6.50), a piece of boneless chicken set on a coarse berm of yellow split peas, with a gentle hint of what we might call curry flavor. The use of legumes here seemed to be a nod to the west, toward India, land of legumes. If I've ever come across a lentil or other legume in Thai or Vietnamese cooking, I don't remember it.
Burmese Kitchen also offers a version of the baked-rice dish known in India as biryani. Here it's called dan pauk ($8.95) and is heavily laced with flaps of beef — not, maybe, the protein you'd be most likely to find in an Indian biryani.
Several of the dishes feature ingredients I hadn't come across before. A tea-leaf salad ($5.95) included cabbage, tomato, fried garlic, and a heavy shower of sesame seeds and peanuts — the salad's chief effects were crunch and tartness. But while the tea leaves themselves laid there docilely while we ate them, we felt their avenging presence later, in the middle of the night. Tea leaves might not have the caffeine charge of coffee beans, but they have enough to make themselves known.
Then there's the prawn and sour leaf salad ($6.50). The owner, Dennis Lin, personally recommended this, and one taste revealed why. The salad (which includes bamboo shoots and sliced onions, along with tamarind leaves for sour power) was powerfully tart in a way unlike that of either vinegar or lemons and limes, our most common sources of tongue-curling acidity. If the sourness reminded me of anything, it was of verjus, the unfermented wine-grape juice the French sometimes use in vinaigrettes.
Lin, incidentally, roams the dining room like an Italian patrone, checking, recommending, chatting, confirming. When the owner of a restaurant actually does this, you are made aware of how few actually do it. It's the restaurant-owners equivalent of boots on the ground, and there's no substitute for it if the owner wants to know how a place is running and how people feel about the food and, indeed, the whole experience. And most diners tend to feel better about a place if the owner is at hand.
We did find a few dishes that flew slightly wide of the mark. The pork with pickled mango ($6.50), touted by Lin, had a muddy look that affected the way we perceived its taste. A sprig of something green would have been a simple corrective. And the fish with tamarind sauce ($6.50) seemed underpowered, the sauce tasting more of soy sauce than anything else, with just a suggestion of fruitiness.