The Civic Center deli known as Larkin Express was the ideal of those who love to find the hidden little restaurants of the city. It was a grungy lunch place that featured quick-service American deli sandwiches such as Reubens and tuna melts, specializing in fresh-roasted turkey, but also offered a few steam-table Burmese specialties on the down-low. Alas, the place closed at 4 and wasn't open on the weekends, so few except the lunch crowd tried its samusa soup or tea leaf salad.
Owner Dennis Lim is proud of his sandwiches — they're still available — but he has redecorated, renamed, and rebranded his space, which is now open for dinner five nights a week. Two signs outside read Burmese Kitchen in addition to the Larkin Express ones. The old name is relegated to small type on the takeout menu, which now boasts more than 65 freshly prepared Burmese dishes.
Burmese cuisine encompasses influences from Chinese, Thai, and Indian food. You'll see masalas and biryanis on the menu, as well as many curries, and ong noh kau swer, a chicken coconut noodle soup reminiscent of the popular Thai tom kha gai. But many of Lim's dishes are interesting and unique, even to lucky San Francisco diners who are familiar with the city's other Burmese places, from the popular Burma Superstar and Pagan to the more esoteric Yellow Pa Taut.
Lim's long-cooked stews are especially intriguing. Beef with lemongrass ($5.95) drenched its firm cubes of beef in a dark rich sauce that tasted almost winey, with hints of clove and cinnamon as well as the lemongrass it had been simmered with. Sauerkraut pork ($6.50) was a curious and satisfying marriage of Asia and Germany, falling-apart chunks of meat in a sauce tinged with turmeric and draped with melting shreds of sauerkraut. Both dishes demand a side dish of rice to absorb their sauces — steamed rice is only $1, but spring an extra buck for the delicious coconut rice, or rice mixed with lentils.
Ordering one of Burma Kitchen's signature salads is also essential for the contrasting crunch and texture. The la pat dok, tea leaf salad ($5.95), is numbered A1 at the top of the menu, and is an A1 version of the dish. Lim imports fermented whole tea leaves from Burma and mixes them with shredded cabbage, diced tomato, fried garlic, sesame seeds, toasted yellow split peas, dried shrimp, and a sesame oil dressing. Just as good is the crispy fried pea salad ($5.95), which you can have with chicken or vegetarian — Lim told us that the version with chicken is the authentic one. The peas are made into a sort of cakey cracker and crumbled into the salad with minced chicken, along with many of the crunchy ingredients found in the tea leaf salad, and a chile-spiked dressing. We also loved the gin dok, ginger salad ($5.95): lots of pickled ginger mixed with firm fresh soybeans, peanuts, fried coconut and shallots, and the ever-popular crispy yellow split peas. The number of ingredients and the amount of prep work that goes into these dishes are awe-inspiring: We envision a mise-en-place behind the scenes in Burmese Kitchen as complicated as one in a French restaurant.
Shrimp and sour leaf ($6.50) featured plenty of small shrimp in the shell, in tangy fish sauce, entwined with steamed bamboo and long strands of bitter greens that tasted like collards but are called roselle, a kind of hibiscus known in Jamaica as sorrel (confusingly, not the same herb we know by that name). Prawns and pumpkin ($6.50) was just that, and one of the blander dishes we tried. It had significantly fewer shrimp — we found only four — though we enjoyed the buttery flavor of the squash. Eggs with tamarind sauce ($5.50) were unusual and interesting: sliced hard-boiled eggs piled atop a very mildly fruity, oniony stew.
Wide garlic noodles with pork ($6.50) tasted homey, almost Eastern European, and a trifle bland: they benefited from a dusting of spicy red-orange dried shrimp paste, which is used in many dishes as an ingredient and also as a popular condiment. It's listed on the menu by itself ($5.50) under seafood, but when we asked to order it, Lim said it was too much for the three of us, and brought us a few tablespoons (quite sufficient for our needs) on a small plate for free. A dab of paste comes with most of the budget-friendly lunch combo specials ($5.95-$8.50), offered from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. In keeping with the generous spirit of the place, you can still order a lunch combo after that for a dollar more than the bargain price. If you try combo meal D (choice of any two meats, choice of vegetables, steamed rice, Burmese organic hot tea), you might try the very fragrant sliced, roasted ginger pork. Chicken biryani ($7.95) buried a jointed stewed leg and thigh in masses of spicy rice, scented with cloves, cinnamon, and coriander. It's also available as a side dish for $2.
The selection of beer and wine isn't extensive, but it's welcome with the spicy fare. Burma Kitchen even offers a happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m., featuring $2 beers. We also enjoyed young coconut juice served in the shell ($3.50). Even the desserts ($1.50 each) were compelling: pearly beads of tapioca drenched in salty-tasting coconut milk; a crumbly, rich semolina cake that reminded us a little of halva; and a firm little transparent coconut gelatin with shredded coconut gleaming in its depths (all house-made, and pleasantly undersweet).
The most striking aspect of Burma Kitchen's rather minimalist redecoration, which is unrelievedly brown, with fluorescent lights coldly beaming down from the high ceiling, is the thatched hut erected over the counter. A few Burmese embroidered textiles have been hung on the dun-colored walls. So your attention is directed towards the colorful food, which is well worthy of it.