My sporadic rounds of the areas Burmese restaurants recently took me to two spots located near each other in San Franciscos Richmond district.
Mandalay Restaurant has been around for at least 25 years and introduced many of us to Burmese flavors. The blonde wood paneling and polished wood-framed ceiling gives the interior a natural feel, and the waist-high room dividers help to break-up the large dining room.
I was happy to see that some dishes are available as half-portions so that I could try more things for my solo dinner. I started with a half order of Lap Pak Dok (fermented tea leaf salad), $3.95. This was in the fishy/funky style with a good amount of pulverized tender tea leaves. The lemony dressing was very flavorful and the quantity of tea leaves added a slight bitter aftertaste to the crunchy mélange of toasted garlic chips, fresh jalapeño slices, toasted lentils, roasted peanuts, ground shrimp, and sesame. Yet I would have to ding it for the peanuts and sesame not being freshly roasted for the toasty aromatics. An appetizer of Balada, $3.95 was a roti-like pan fried bread served with a tasty sweetened curry sauce. However, this was overly thick and while golden brown and crisp on the outside, the center layers were doughy and raw. The Curry Beef Combination with Cheffron Rice, $7.50, featured medium-spiced beef chuck stewed in a pool of orange grease. The tough chunks of meat were dried out and the sauce was tired and flat tasting. The accompanying tampoi rice was biryani-like with exotic spicing, frozen peas and carrots, bay leaf, cinnamon, plump raisins and reddish and yellow saffron-like color long grain rice. The separate and somewhat greasy rice grains were chewy and sometimes overly hard. But I will note that it was a bountiful serving.
While not a terrible meal, my overall sense was that the kitchen was calling it in and not paying attention to details any more. Service was also uneven. My waitress was unable to answer my questions about the preparations, food was brought to my table that were orders for other parties, and I had to ask more than once for water and refills.
4348 California St. (at 6th Ave.)
Even though Burma SuperStar has been on the scene since 1992, this was my first visit. The small room has a warm and intimate feel with a touch of the exotic while not being overtly foreign. Other posters have described it as tacky and a hole-in-the-wall, but it didnt strike me that way (guess I hang out in far more dive-y places than some!). I didnt order wine or look at a wine list, but I spotted a bottle of Bonny Doons Cardinal Zin on the bar in the back corner that I imagine could be delicious with the style of food here.
The extensive menu has a large vegetables/tofu section and several meat dishes are available in vegetarian versions. Burmese specialties are starred to make them easier to pick out. Each of the dishes is accompanied with a description, which helps make the food less scary and the staff also offer to answer questions. I discovered that the unidentified sour vegetable Id had at Rangoon (link below) was indeed sorrel, and its described on SuperStars menu as an acquired taste.
The Tea Leaf Salad, $7.95, was first up. A bed of thickly sliced iceberg lettuce was topped with diced tomatoes, fried garlic, sunflower seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds, toasted lentils, jalapeño, diced tomatoes, and a very small amount of fermented tea leaves. My server squeezed lemon juice overall and tossed it at the table. While I had not ordered this as vegetarian, the dried shrimp mentioned on the menu were missing and there seemed to be no other dressing (e.g., fish sauce) other than the lemon juice. The flavor of the scant serving of tea leaves became quite dilute in the volume of ingredients. While all were fresh and well-prepared, I couldnt help but think of this as tea leaf salad lite. The Platha, $2.50, pan-fried layered bread had a greasy and crackly brown crust more like it was deep-fried. Although it didnt have as many layers as better versions, it was mostly cooked through with just a bit of wetness in the center core. This was served plain without sugar or sauce. Pumpkin Pork Stew, $9.00, was served in a beautiful blue and white porcelain lidded tureen. When I removed the top, I peered in and then had to lean over pretty far to catch a glimpse of my food way down in the bottom of the server. This was a skimpy serving with three chunks of pork and five pieces of kabocha in a mild and slightly sweet yellow curry sauce topped with fresh cilantro. Yet the pork was absolutely on point meltingly tender, full of flavor, and succulent and the pumpkin was soft but not falling apart. The Coconut Rice, $1.50, was topped with deep-fried onions. The texture of the jasmine rice cooked with coconut milk was broken and soft, but this absorbed the curried juices of the stew nicely.
I enjoyed this meal more than my dinner at Mandalay. The kitchen has a light hand, preserving the freshness of the ingredients. My server kept a vigilant eye on my table and checked back twice to see if things were okay. This is an easy and approachable place to try Burmese cuisine.
309 Clement St. (between 4th and 5th Aves.)