- By Wyatt Williams For the AJC
Over the past several years, a friend who moved to Atlanta from San Francisco has often repeated a lament to me. “I just can’t find any Burmese food here,” she would say. I found it to be a surprising problem.
One of Atlanta’s great assets, I tend to tell people thinking about moving here, is the deep, rich diversity of food available in our restaurants. Just drive down Buford Highway, and you’ll find whatever you’re looking for, I say. Nine times out of 10, that seems to be true. Yet, she was right. Here and there, you might find some distinct Burmese ingredients in a small grocer or maybe a Burmese dish on the menu at a Malaysian restaurant. Aside from the short-lived Chin Star, no Atlanta restaurant in recent memory dug into the riches of Burmese cuisine.
What riches they are.
Myanmar, the name Burma adopted following a coup d’etat in 1962, sits between India, China and Thailand. The traditional dishes of Burma are clearly influenced by those spicy curries of India, the chewy noodles of China, and funky, bright street foods of Thailand, but the cuisine stands wholly on its own.
In San Francisco, where many Burmese relocated following the violent instability and military dictatorship installed by the coup, a long-running restaurant called Burma Superstar and several others have established a popular kind of Burmese-American cuisine. Burmese restaurants have since sprung up across the U.S., not only in New York or Philadelphia, but also in smaller cities like Indianapolis. Just a few months ago, Aa Mawi and Nyan Aung opened Royal Myanmar Cuisine in Clarkston. It’s a restaurant that should finally, permanently put Burmese food on metro Atlanta’s map.
This is a humble-looking place, a square building in a run-down strip mall parking lot that used to sell fast food under the name Hot Winglanta. There isn’t much to say for the interior decoration. In fact, there isn’t much to say for the service, either. Though Mawi and Aung are friendly and pretty good at answering questions about the menu, they both disappear for long stretches in the kitchen to prepare the food. It was minutes before I saw either the first time I arrived, though a friendly man at a neighboring table assured me they’d be out eventually. “It’s worth the wait,” he said.
He was right. You’ll want to have a pot of tea with your meal, if only to have something to keep you company for the long stretch between ordering and eating. This is the classic condition of a mom-and-pop shop, though Mawi and Aung are business partners, not spouses. Mawi came to the U.S. in 2001 and worked at sushi counters before deciding to open a restaurant. Aung, who has been in the U.S. for less than two years, learned to cook working in his mother’s restaurant in Burma. The menu largely reflects what he served there.
You must order lah pet thoke, a salad made of fermented tea leaves, fried peas, garlic, sesame seeds, lentils, red skin peanuts and tiny threads of cabbage. The tea leaf paste is an intoxicating flavor distinct to Burmese food, both funky like fish sauce and bright like a pickle. The salad is a medley of textures, alternating crunchy and tender, that liven the deep complexity of flavor.
I feel almost as strongly about the palatas, two plate-size flatbreads and a bowl of smooth, savory yellow lentil dal for dipping. Fans of Malaysian roti canai will recognize the similarity, but palatas are entirely distinct in their texture, which seems to include endless, flake-thin layers not unlike the lamination in croissant pastry dough. The result is a bread that is flaky, chewy, crisp and a bit sweet. If the lah pet thoke is a complex melody, the palatas are one big single satisfying note of bready comfort food.
You’ll have to finish your meal with one of the several options of noodles on the menu. Nan gyi thoke coats chewy, thick noodles with a thin veneer of yellow curry and tosses in a few chunks of chicken and boiled egg to round out the dish. It’s rich without being too heavy. Ohn no kyawawe, a spicy chicken noodle soup thickened with coconut milk yellow lentil dal, is as filling as a bowl of tonkatsu ramen.
A milder option is kyay oh, a nearly clear bowl of broth and thin vermicelli noodles, spinach, quail eggs, and a few meatballs made from pork organs. The meatballs were quite mellow and clean tasting for offal, though I realize that is faint praise for some palates. The lean broth reminded me of an under-seasoned pho, but a spike of the house-made sambal livened it up.
With this wealth of complex, fascinating, and, it should be said, very affordable dishes on the menu, you may be surprised to see that the one dish Royal Myanmar Cuisine advertises in its window is “FRESH WINGS.” They’re available in lemon pepper, barbecue or buffalo sauce. Maybe that’s to keep Hot Winglanta’s old customers happy. Maybe it’s just another example of an old truth: that food always changes a bit to the place that it’s made in. Should lemon pepper chicken wings be on a Burmese menu? I’d say it makes perfect sense in Atlanta.