Morning mist rises above the stupa like diaphanous tendrils from the forest floor as the sun warms the earth. Birds of all shapes and sizes clatter in the treetops proclaiming their territory, and in the village, dogs bark the dawn like town criers. Until recently, those of us in the US and Europe had to travel half a world away to get Burmese food. But now, Burmese restaurants are popping up all over, often replacing closed Chinese or Vietnamese eateries. Washington DC and its suburbs in Virginia and Maryland now have at least three Burmese restaurants that I know of, so I thought it high time I started sampling them.
I have wanted to try DC’s Burma restaurant for a few years now, but for one reason or another, never managed to get there when they were open. It sits right in the heart of Chinatown on 740 6th St NW (off of H street), on the second floor above a Thai eatery. When a colleague suggested we go out to lunch recently to discuss an upcoming project, I jumped at the chance to try the restaurant that had so long beckoned me.
We’ve been having what can only be described as monsoon rains here in the DC area, and on the day we dined at Burma my colleague and I both got drenched on our way to lunch. The decor and atmosphere of Burma are plain and unassuming with a few paintings and crafts to decorate the walls, and on the day we went, there was no climate control. We were wet, and the restaurant was hot – so it was quite like dining in Southeast Asia that day. But, authenticity is a good thing, so we didn’t mind.
We sipped Burmese sweet iced teas while perusing the menu which cooled us down a bit, and started with the pickled green tea leaf salad which was simply delicious. It was astringent from the the flavor of the tea leaves and just a bit sour from the pickling, but had peanuts, sesame oil, ground shrimp and fish sauce to round out the edges and bring it back down to earth. As prepared that day it was a great deal less fishy than salads I’ve had in Asia, but it was still quite good. It was the sort of dish you just want to keep picking at – this desire, of course, helped along by the glutamates in the fish sauce.
Our main courses were Tamarind Fish and Mango Pork. The Tamarind Fish was another winning dish with the lightly spicy and sour tamarind and onion-based brown sauce teasing the full flavor out of the fish – in this case salmon. The dish was much less hot and sour than I remember, and I found the choice of salmon a bit puzzling – a big, fat, hunk of meaty catfish would have been more authentic, but nevertheless it was good.
The Mango Pork was mild and delicious. The mango was more sweet than sour and lacked the bite that pickled mango often has, but the pork was slowly cooked to perfection and was juicy and buttery. The tamarind and lemon added to the rich brown sauce of the dish, but were not overly sour or otherwise obtrusive. A gentle alternative for those not liking too much spice or heat in their food.
We alas only sampled these few dishes, but were generally pleased with the results. In a metropolitan area simply glutted with Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Malay restaurants, the growing presence of Burmese and other Asian cuisines is welcome. Burma DC offers good, simple, homestyle food that we enjoyed (especially the tea-leaf salad). If I have a criticism, its to be found in what feel like muted flavors – less heat, less spice, less sour than the authentic Burmese food I remember. Still, I hope to return to sample a few more dishes. There are a few, such as pickled mustard leaf and sour bamboo shoot (each with choice of meat) that I’d like to try as well as a whole array of noodle dishes, a couple of kebabs and of course the great fish-soup, mohinga. So, yeah, I’ll be back. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of the Burmese Stupa © Brownm39 | Dreamstime.com. Other images borrowed from Google images).