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Any American who claims to be a true connoisseur of Burmese cuisine is probably lying. The country formerly known as Burma has been war-torn since 1988 and referred to as the Union of Myanmar since ’89. Known more as the home of recently imprisoned heroin lord Khun Sa than for its tourist trade, Myanmar is not a common stop for globe-trotting gastronomes. And even if one acquires a taste for Burmese food, there are few places to satisfy the jones: Burma, located in D.C.’s Chinatown, is one of only a handful of such restaurants in the country.
Complicating matters for me, what Burma serves bears only a passing resemblance to what I had on my only other encounter with the cuisine. The menu of the Burmese place I tried in London was dominated by deep-fried vegetables, poultry, and pork, and it offered none of the salads or noodle dishes that are Burma (the restaurant)’s forte. The meals were supplemented by an array of sauces that ranged from very spicy to call-me-a-doctor hot, which was the main reason the restaurant’s owners had to relocate to London from Oslo, where the locals had stayed away out of pure fear. Even when we ask to have our meals prepared hot, however, Burma’s food is never so abrasive—just sublime.
When you offer cuisine as uncommon as Burma’s, bells-and-whistles decor is hardly necessary—the frills are in the food. Burma is situated upstairs from Mr. Yung’s Chinese restaurant in a space previously occupied by a martial arts school. There are two rooms: one designated for smokers, which is always
empty, and one that’s usually occupied and fume-free. (The staff does agree to let my companions light up after a meal in the restricted area after all the other customers have gone.) It would be overdoing it to say anything more of the spartan dining rooms than that they are white and filled with tables and chairs.
Maybe it’s a reflection of the plain surroundings that we consider the waiter with whom we exchange words only once to be a colorful character, but I doubt it. Presumably he doesn’t speak English, which is a shame because his constant, you-should-see-what-I-see smirk suggests that he’s got something worth sharing. While the waitress/hostess answers the phone and takes the orders (a division of duties that sometimes leads to confusion and slow service), the guy with the permanent grin does the grunt work, his smile suggesting a different state of mischievous glee with each item he delivers. Judging from the expression he sports when he brings the roast duck (a honey-and-garlic-drenched feast for four that must be ordered a day in advance), I’d guess it’s Perma-Grin’s favorite dish. “I feel like that guy’s gonna break into song at any second,” a friend observes.
Although I don’t completely rule out the possibility that Perma-Grin could be sneaking glasses of wine at the wait station, Burma’s food is deserving of his cheery spirit. The entrees are served family-style, and most with large bowls of rice. The cuisine is an alchemic marriage of Chinese, Indian, and Thai cooking. While fans of more popular Asian cuisines are certain to be intrigued by the restaurant’s menu, the food is distinctively Burmese.
If Burma’s appetizers seem a little pricey (the bulk of them go for six or seven dollars), it’s only because the main courses cost about the same. Anyone averse to fried food is advised to skip the starters and order an extra entree. But those who aren’t should be sure to try the golden triangles—thin and crispy fritterlike potatoes—and the fried sticks of squash called gold fingers. The fingers are served with a pleasant tamarind sauce, but the sweet-and-sour chili sauce that comes with the triangles is better, not to mention the hottest thing we tried from Burma’s menu. Other appetizers, such as the spring rolls and fried prawns, are good enough but hardly essential, seeing as you can get something very similar anywhere else in Chinatown.
I doubt it’s a coincidence that the most crowded I ever found Burma was on a Sunday evening when the temperature outside was close to 100 degrees. The salads, which along with a plate of noodles are what almost all the other diners order on this hot day, are as cool and invigorating as fresh fruit. They are served with the rest of the entrees and come with shredded vegetables and meats and plump chunks of tomato. The oil-and-lemon-juice-based dressings are always tangy and are often offset with an undercurrent of hot chili pepper. Besides the steamed squid salad, with its sharp hints of garlic and coriander, and the green tea leaf salad, which is mixed with ground shrimp, Burma’s best salads are meatless. The spring ginger salad is a bracing concoction of young ginger root tossed with cabbage, lemon juice, sesame seeds, crunchy onions, toasted beans, and carrots. The herbal salad is seasonal (it’s only offered in the summer) and contains hearty Burmese horseshoe leaves, cabbage, and fresh garlic tossed in soybean oil.
Dishes like kauswe thoke, pantay kauswe, and mandalay nanjee all resemble Singapore-style noodles—big mounds of pasta that don’t appear to contain many ingredients—but their flavor is no more simple than that of the salads. Hidden within the giant rice noodles in the mandalay nanjee are nearly invisible shreds of chicken, toasted bean, onion, and garlic that make their presence known once you dig in. Pantay kauswe is a chicken and vegetable dish with a sauce that’s representative of Burma’s surprisingly light curries. Thanks to its generous dose of hot pepper, the kauswe thoke is such a hit I order it on consecutive visits.
Some of Burma’s other entrees—sautés and curries made with chicken, beef, or shrimp, for example—are well prepared but hew to the norm that causes some people to insist that all Asian kitchens offer only slightly tweaked versions of the same recipes.
Still, it’d be a shame to leave Burma without feeling as though you’ve traveled someplace you’ve never been. This is, after all, a restaurant that serves several dishes—a warm, soupy dessert of tapioca pearls and coconut cream, a delightful plate of sour, pickled mustard plant, chopped pork slowly cooked with pickled mango—that actually cause us to giggle while we eat. And I’m sure Perma-Grin, who utters a suspiciously casual “see ya later” as I walk out on my last visit would agree.
Burma Restaurant, 740 6th St. NW. (202) 638-1280.
There’s a rule that applies to most Mediterranean and Middle Eastern grocery stores: Where there are olives, there’s sure to be baklava close by. At Mediterranean Bakery and Cafe, it’s really coffee I’m after, but I opt to sample the sweets. The baklava comes in a variety of shapes and with several different types of nuts, but what the round pine-nut-topped and triangular pistachio baklava have in common is near-petrifaction, making chewing all but impossible. And no, dunking doesn’t help.
Mediterranean Bakery and Cafe, 352 S. Pickett St., Alexandria. (703) 751-0030.—Brett Anderson
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