Burmese restaurants are rather thin on the ground anywhere in the U.S. Good Burmese restaurants are even rarer. Even in New York City , that restaurant mecca , I’ve only heard of two Burmese restaurants, neither of them particularly good. What a surprise to find not one but two good Burmese restaurants in the Washington D.C area. One is Mandalay located in Silver Spring, MD and the other is Burma in downtown Chinatown.
I first came to know of Mandalay four years ago when my nephew invited us there for his graduation party.Since the we’ve been there twice, the most recent visit being this past week . It continues to delight and I’ve no hestation in recommending it to anyone wanting to sample Burmese food.
Burmese cuisine is undoubtedly the least known of the Asian cuisines probably because the country’s ruling junta has kept it isolated from the rest of the world. Which is a shame , because the people are reputed to be among the nicest in Asia and the food very, very good. Like most South East Asian cuisines, it has been strongly influenced by the cuisines of India and China . In general , it is milder than either of them and makes considerable use of peanuts, coconuts and lemon juice. I would describe it as a milder, more refined version of Thai cuisine. The two best known Burmese recipes are Chicken Khowswe ( chicken in a nild coconut based gravy served with noodles and accompanied by an array of condiments) and Mohinga ( fish stew).
Be that as it may, for me the great attraction of Burmese food lies in it’s salads. At Mandalay, the other day, our party of four asked for three Thoke or salads, Gram Fritter salad, Ginger Salad and Fermented Green Tea Leaf Salad. The last named was not available so we asked for Green Mango Salad instead. All three of them were excellent, as usual. Despite the names, all of them have certain similarities. The main ingredients may be different but all of them contain very finely shredded cabbage, onions,carrots and cilantro and are flavored with a “Burmese Dressing ” consisting of sesame seeds, crushed peanuts ,gram powder, lemon juice , garlic oil and fish sauce. It’s flavorful , mild and delicious.On previous occasions , I felt that the Gram Fritter Salad was the best but this time around I thought that the other two were just as good.
We shared three main dishes : Shrimp Curry with onions, green pepper and tomato ; Sliced Pork with Sour Mustard, and a Mixed Noodle Dish with four different kinds of noodles. The shrimp curry was out of this world , the yellow curry paste tempered with just the right amount of coconut milk to make a perfect gravy. The noodles too were very good , mixed with the same ingredients as the salads plus fried tofu and potatoes. The pork dish was pretty good but could have been better. It was very similar to a dish that I’ve eaten many times in Chinatown restaurants and have even prepared at home . The trick is to wash the pickled mustard in several changes of water to get rid of the salt and then soak it in sugar water to get rid of some of the sourness. At Mandalay, the mustard had apparently not been soaked enough because it was a little too sour for my taste. The dishes were served with bowls of white rice.
At Mandalay, we always make it a point to order side dishes or condiments to add zip to the meal. Our two favorites are Achin Yay ( Lemon and Garlic with hot chili oil) and Mandalay Acho Yay ( Soy sauce, garlic, lemon juice, chili, sesame seeds and crushed peanuts). Great tasting and , at 49 cents each, a real steal.
For dessert we had Shweji ( a golden brown cake of cream of wheat, coconut cream, raisins and milk, topped with poppy seeds ) and Coconut Ice Cream. Actually the latter is more like a sorbet and is served in a faux coconut shell.We split the desserts between us and the contrast of hot and cold was delightful.
Mandalay does serve drinks and has a good selection of beers and a modest wine list. While we were waiting for our food to be served , I enjoyed a copper colored winter ale whose name I forgot to note while another in our party had a Mandalay Ale which , despite it’s name, turned out to have been brewed in the Yakima Valley, Washington State.No matter; both were toothsome.
Mandalay has an extensive menu with at least a dozen other dishes that I would love to try. Appetizers like Squash fritters and Eggplant fritters, Squid salad, Spring Roll Salad, Fried Catfish with vegetables in a curry sauce and Beef curry are some of the dishes I am looking forward to trying on my next trip to Washington . May it be soon !
A final word about the atmosphere at Mandalay. It’s very relaxing and pleasant and the friendly staff make you feel right at home. It appears to be a family run enterprise and everyone from the manager to the greeter and waitpersons make dining there a delightful experience. Prices are very moderate. Our check for a party of four , inclusive of two beers and tip was about $ 105.
Mandalay Restaurant and Cafe 930 Bonifant Street, Silver Spring , MD 20910. Phone (301) 585-0500. Visa, MasterCard.