FOOD: Jaded by Asian-American Restaurants? Try Myanmar

Jimmy-thumbAs the only Burmese restaurant in the Falls Church area, Myanmar could go the simple route and serve a bunch of easy-to-like Americanized dishes with little thought or soul behind them. Most of us wouldn’t know the difference.

But this strip mall café is sticking to its roots with honest cooking and a no-frills atmosphere. Some dishes will wow you. Others are unremarkable. Part of the fun is navigating the menu and unlocking its mysteries.

Before I get to the menu, though, how many Americans even know what Burmese food is? Few people in the country have access to this underappreciated food from the small Southeast Asian nation. It’s hard to categorize, really. Some dishes — heavy on lemongrass, chilies, garlic, or coconut milk — make you think Thai. Others are perfumed with cumin and onion, almost Indian in nature. And there are even Chinese-influenced stir fries. Ultimately, though, Burmese food is Burmese food. It’s got a flavor and spice that are its own. You’ve just got to try it.

Of course, if you go to Myanmar and are handed a menu, even if you have some idea of what the flavors are like, chances are you won’t know what to do next. Unless you’re Burmese, it’s hard to find dishes you’ve even heard of, let alone ever tasted. The menu is also long — biblically long. There are more than a dozen salads, too many fried appetizers to count, and pages of entrees featuring the ubiquitous headers of beef, pork, poultry, seafood, and vegetarian. There are also soups, house specialties, noodle and rice dishes, sides, and desserts.

So let me narrow it down for you real quick: Start in the salad section and go from there. In my two visits the best dishes by far were salads.

The ginger salad is an intriguing mix-up of pickled ginger, tomato, cabbage, peanuts and lime juice that is taken to another level with the crunchy addition of fried garlic cloves (where have THEY been all my life?) and toasted yellow peas. It takes a few bites to understand the textures and interwoven flavors in the dish, but in the end the plate is clean and you are left wanting more.

Always get the mango salad!

The mango salad is even better. Shreds of unripe mango, cabbage, and onion are redolent with the same wonderful fried garlic and have some added zing thanks to chili peppers and a generous sprinkling of cilantro. It’s like some sort of spicy, savory Burmese coleslaw concoction. Every one of my future trips to Myanmar will include this dish.

Nothing else I’ve ordered is something that I would get again. That doesn’t mean it was bad — just not terribly exciting. A pumpkin curry came out with beautifully steamed kabocha squash, but the sauce was oily and lacked punch. Spicy chicken in a cumin curry was faintly reminiscent of an Indian-style curry, yet it lacked the complexity. The Oh-no Kaukswe, a chicken noodle soup rich with coconut cream, was disappointingly bland even after I doused it with chilies and lime juice.

Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that Myanmar has many treasures hidden in its epic menu.

And next time I will be armed with a secret weapon.

During my last visit a man who described himself as a family member of the owner approached me to make sure I had everything I needed.  I said yes and casually asked what he recommended for my next trip, not expecting much of a response. He rushed to the front counter and came back with a take-out menu and a red pen. Over the next 10 minutes we talked about fermented tea leaves, hot and cold salads, sour mustard greens, and yellow chickpea tofu, and he circled and underlined more than a dozen of his favorite dishes.

So now I’ve got a long list to try. The green papaya and watercress salads are at the top, followed closely by the pork with jackfruit, chicken with lemongrass, and mutton curry.

There are bound to be hits and misses, but if I encounter even one more dish that is the equal of the mango salad then a return trip will be considered a success.

Service? Waiters have to eat, too.

Aside from the intriguing array of food, there isn’t much to Myanmar. Don’t expect great service. This isn’t some well-oiled machine with trained waiters and an assembly line of cooks. My first time I was at the restaurant — during a busy Saturday lunch rush — the appetizers took 30 minutes to get to the table. On my last trip my waiter took my order and then sat down a few tables across from me and ate his lunch. When my food was ready the cook brought it out herself, as my “server’ was still slurping down his bowl of soup.

But these types of things don’t bother me. In fact, I find them refreshing. They are the quirky charms of a place that feels more like someone’s home than a restaurant.

My recommendation: Go to Myanmar, pig out on some salads, and try a few other dishes that peak your interest. Even if they don’t all float your boat, and you miss out on a water refill, you’ll still be glad you spent money at a place that is so full of hole-in-the-wall charm — and so clearly the lifeblood of a hard-working Burmese family.

Myanmar Restaurant: 7810-C Lee Hwy., 703-289-0013 (Click here for map.)

(Photos by Jimmy Scarano)

(Photos by Jimmy Scarano)

July 31, 2009 


4 Responses to “FOOD: Jaded by Asian-American Restaurants? Try Myanmar”

  1. Jim Breiling on August 1st, 2009 4:26 pm

    Thanks, Jimmy, for a very informative review. We’ve put Myanmar on our list to visit soon.

    A small thing: Isn’t Myanmar now the official name for what has been known as Burma?

  2. George Southern on August 2nd, 2009 10:36 am

    Jim — As an employee of the State Department, I can’t resist responding to your comment (although my response is in no way “official”).

    The name “Burma” dates from British colonial rule. In 1988 a military government came into power as a result of a coup, and in 1989 the new government “de-colonialized” a lot of place names, including “officially” changing the name of the country to Myanmar.

    The United Nations recognized the name change, but the United States and some other countries refused to do so, thus marking their dissatisfaction with the military government, which has refused to honor the results of parliamentary elections.

    Meanwhile, many news organizations, including the AP, Reuters, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal, call the country Myanmar. But the Washington Post, the BBC, USA Today, Time, and Newsweek call it Burma.

    The burning question, of course, is: what is the official policy of the Falls Church Times in this regard? Jimmy Scarano was very careful not to set a precedent without approval by the governing board: although he makes several references to “going to Myanmar,” it seems in every case that he is referring to the restaurant of that name, not the country.

    A decision by the Falls Church Times on the official name of the country will be made in the fullness of time, and will be announced with appropriate fanfare.

  3. Jim Breiling on August 2nd, 2009 11:04 am

    We got a carry out order last (Saturday) evening, following the salad recommendations in Jimmy Scarano’s review, and adding two items, tofu and spinach, both of which we liked.

    I asked the woman who handled our order if she had seen the review in The Falls Church Times. I don’t think that she is engaged with the internet.

    She mentioned that there had been new customers recently. After consuming our order, we agreed that we would progress from new to repeat customers.

  4. stacy hennessey on August 4th, 2009 9:14 pm

    Oh my goodness. I have going there for years and nothing can beat their tomato/ cucumber salad and the chicken in a coconut curry sauce. Both are unbelievable. Truly. Everyone I have brought to Myanmar loves it!

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