I call them the "lost cities" -- the towns you've heard of but couldn't place on a map if your life depended on it. Duarte, Lomita, Stanton, Montebello, Temple City and Villa Park are all part of the "Lost Cities of Los Angeles" club, and Whittier is definitely lost too.
Part of the problem is that it's really bloody hard to get to Whittier. It's not especially freeway-convenient, and the freeway it is near (the 605 between the 5 and the 60) is not a stretch of road most Angelenos (or Orange Countians) ever drive. I assumed that because Whittier touches Orange County that it couldn't be that far away -- but it took me 45 minutes to get there at 6:30 on a Friday night from Anaheim.
Nevertheless, Uptown Whittier (which is its business centre, the Whittwood Mall notwithstanding) is a cute place, on a hill near Whittier College, and absolutely nowhere near anything else... and it contains, amongst the sprawl of creperies, Italian and Mexican places, and barbecue shacks (including a Santa Maria style place that I will need to check out)...
...a Burmese restaurant. Yes, one of the only (if not THE only) Burmese restaurant in SoCal. Except it's disguised as a Thai restaurant, and most of the patrons on a busy Friday night were eating quasi-Thai food. The menu is a mixture of Thai, a few Laotian and several Burmese dishes. The Burmese dishes are mostly called out on the menu, but there aren't separate Burmese and Thai sections, which would be a good thing here, I think.
I wanted Burmese food, and said so to the waitress, who had suggested shrimp rolls, angel wings and pad Thai to me. She smiled and pointed out the specialities. I ordered mixed laphet thoke (called "lap pad dok" on their menu), mo hin nga, and dan bauk htaminh. (A note here: I speak twelve languages, and can at least not embarrass myself in ten more -- and Burmese, at least as transliterated on Golden Triangle's menu, beat me like a red-headed stepchild. I pronounced it on a guess, the waitress repeated it, and it was NOTHING like written. I gave up. Irish Gaelic is easier to guess at.)
I also ordered tea, which came with sugar. I was surprised at this, since it was standard jasmine tea, always drunk neat in Chinese restaurants. If it had been more like Indian chai (boiled to death with milk and sometimes spices) I would have sweetened it, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it.
Laphet thoke ("tea leaf salad") is not a salad. It is more like Indian chaat, where you take one ingredient (laphet, or fermented green tea leaves) and add all sorts of toppings to it, then mix it together. ("Thoke" or "dok", pronounced "doh", means "mixed" and appears to be the uniting theme behind Burmese food.) My laphet thoke contained ginger, coconut, sesame seeds, lentils, lentil crisps, lemon, and God only knows what all else. You know when you're making granola bars and you've got that kind of not-quite-solid, sticky-type substance that you press into the pan to solidify? That's the consistency of laphet thoke. You can eat it with your hands.
The taste was fine (I would have preferred less coconut, it detracted from the astringency of the tea leaves), but it was missing something -- until I ate it with an entire round of jalapeno pepper, which cut immediately through the fray. It made it so much better that I asked for a dish of jalapeno peppers. The waitress called over the hostess (and proprietress), who seemed surprised that I would want so much capsaicin. It isn't the best laphet thoke, and there are restaurants in the Bay Area that serve it with the chopped leaves and the toppings in separate containers so you can "roll your own", but it was tasty enough, and it came with that same slow rise in energy level from the caffeine in the leaves.
Next came the dan bauk htaminh, which is Burmese-style biryani with goat curry. It can also be ordered with baked chicken, but I figured in for a penny, in for a pound. The biryani, which is baked rice, contained little veins of shrimp paste and cashews. It was quite dry, but that was the point of the goat curry, which was absolutely fantastic. It wasn't oily, it was complex, the meat was falling off the bones, and when I spooned the curry onto the rice (and added a bit of dried chilies from a tray on the table -- what can I say?) it made the rice a perfect counterpart -- a little starchy, a little sour (from the shrimp paste), a little meaty, and very, very complex.
Finally the mohinga showed up. This dish epitomises the concept of Burmese food as a bunch of stuff mixed up together to great effect. It looks horrendous -- a bunch of yellow food with noodles and brown bits and whatnot sticking out of it -- but it was the best dish of the evening. Mohinga is catfish broth -- no actual catfish pieces need apply -- with what the Vietnamese would call banh hoi (very fine rice noodles), and then "toppings", some of which I couldn't identify. There were two hard-boiled eggs (perfectly done, too), there was dried tofu, there were soft lentils, there were lentil crackers, there were pieces of pickled cabbage, there were pieces of simmered onions, there was a fish ball, there was shrimp paste, all floating above noodles in a very tasty, curry-laced catfish soup. I, like a greedy pig, ate the whole thing. It was unctuous, it was flavourful, it was fragrant. It's also hard to eat -- you have the very slippery noodles, the toppings, and the soup, but you're provided a fork and spoon.
Because I ate all the mohinga, I didn't have room for dessert, which caused great consternation amongst the staff, since the Burmese (they said) pride themselves on their desserts, which range from Indian-type rice pudding to fried bananas with cream to soups that resemble Vietnamese che. "Next time," I said, "and I'll bring friends."
The dishes are between $6 and $9, as is most of the menu. Portions are plenty. Parking is free and available even on a Friday night.
It was stunningly delicious, a real palate-opener, and I'll definitely be back -- but not at rush hour on a Friday.
Golden Triangle Restaurant
7011 Greenleaf St.
Whittier, CA 90602
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