San Francisco is one of the most exciting food cities in the United States. If you've made the trip, chances are you've filled your belly with everything from clam chowder in a sourdough bowl and Zuni Cafe's roast chicken to horchata bubble tea and toast slathered with homemade preserves at The Mill. Maybe you've even ventured across the Bay to Oakland, which is quietly gaining a reputation as a serious food destination. (Perhaps even better than San Francisco?)
But, there's one regional cuisine you probably haven't tried. I'm talking about Burmese food. As it turns out, San Francisco is home to the largest Burmese population outside of Burma.
What is Burmese food, you might ask? And where should you go for your fix? We asked Desmond Tan, owner of Burma Superstar, now a trio of restaurants with a cult-like local following, to give us the inside scoop.
5 Questions with Burma Superstar's Desmond Tan
How would you define Burmese food?
Sharing borders with India, China, Laos, and Thailand, Burmese cuisine is influenced by the spices, seasonings, ingredients, and cooking styles of its neighbors. But it's the way these ingredients are combined that makes Burmese dishes unique.
I think perhaps the most signature aspect of Burmese cooking is the crispy bits. Burmese people love crunchy ingredients. And crunch doesn't just mean one crispy element — it usually means a handful of nuts, seeds, and fried bits (garlic, onions, yellow split peas). Texture is very important to us.
What essentials would you find in a Burmese pantry?
Unlike neighboring Thailand or India, Burmese food doesn't require a long list of ingredients, especially obscure ones. There are a few standard spices which home cooks have, such as soy sauce, salt, sugar, vinegar, curry powder, garlic, ginger and chili powder. I also love fish sauce and tamarind, as they are consistent throughout most Burmese dishes. My favorites are shrimp paste and fish sauce. I rarely use salt.
What's the food like at Burma Superstar? Is it traditional?
I don't believe our food is fusion of American/Burmese. It's a mix of Indian, Thai, Chinese, and Burmese dishes with very traditional Burmese flavors. Some of our signature dishes include fermented tea leaf salad, coconut rice, rainbow salad, and samusa soup. The Chinese-inspired chili lamb remains a favorite with our loyal customers.
What is the Burmese food scene like in San Francisco?
San Francisco is very diverse, and different restaurants offer different options. There are a number of Burmese restaurants such as Mandalay, Yamo, Rangoon Ruby, Burmese Kitchen, Burma Bear, Golden Burma, and Burma Love in SF. Also, Minglaba, Little Yangon, Burma Cafe, and Teni East Kitchen are outside of San Francisco but nearby.
Do you have a favorite dish?
I eat everything; there really isn't a dish I won't eat. But if I had to pick favorite dish I would say it's the dish I always share with my daughter: mohinga, a catfish chowder/noodle soup that is often referred to as the National Dish of Burma. Also, pork curry with potatoes.
If you're visiting San Francisco or the Bay Area, book a table at Burma Superstar. Or pick up a copy of Desmond Tan's new cookbook, Burma Superstar: Addictive Recipes from the Crossroads of Asia ($18 at Amazon).