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Burma Daze 

This Civic Center deli leads an intriguing double life

Wednesday, Jun 6 2007
What is Burmese cuisine? Simple question, but not so simple to answer, given that the country comprises more than a hundred ethnic groups, each with its own traditions, and the foods of the neighboring countries are very popular. Aung Aung Taik, in his book Burmese Cooking, suggests that the simplest answer is "that Burmese food is everything that is commonly cooked and eaten in Burma except for Chinese, Thai, and Indian dishes."

If a native expert like Taik has trouble answering that question, the challenge is even greater for an ignorant American here in San Francisco faced with a typical Burmese restaurant menu in which the country's unique and exciting specialties are scattered among and outnumbered by relatively pedestrian Chinese and Indian dishes. Guess wrong about which is which, and you can end up with a disappointing meal.

At Larkin Express Deli, there's no such problem. The Burmese dishes are still in the minority, but the rest of the menu features classic American lunch fare such as soup, sandwiches, roast turkey, and meatloaf — not much chance of confusion. In fact, the place is in most respects such a stereotypical Civic Center deli that many regulars may have no idea that the place serves anything more exotic than a turkey sandwich. (Thanks to Chowhound user ThaDu for bringing its double identity to wider attention.)

It can still be a bit of a challenge to figure out all the Burmese dishes that are available. To get the full picture, before entering the restaurant you need to check out the whiteboard in the front window, which may list daily specials; then you need to grab a paper menu from the counter for the list of soups and salads made to order; and finally you need to ask someone behind the counter to identify the items in the Burmese section at the far right of the steam table (the day's selection from the paper menu's "hot meals" section, plus occasional specials). Don't be shy about asking questions, the owner is eager to educate the curious about his country's cuisine.

The tea leaf salad could be the best in town. At some other places, the namesake ingredient is a strong-flavored, dark-green paste of fermented mature tea leaves, and the salad is mostly lettuce or cabbage. Larkin Express instead uses small, young leaves that have been fermented whole, resulting in a more delicate taste and color. They are the dominant ingredient in the dish, which also includes toasted yellow split peas, peanuts, sesame seeds, crisp-fried garlic slices, dried shrimp, julienned iceberg lettuce, and sesame oil, garnished with unnecessary and tasteless pale tomatoes. The salad should be served with a lime wedge, to provide an essential tart note; if you don't get one, ask.

While to American taste buds this seems like a dish to eat at the beginning of a meal, in Burma it's served at the end. That's because it plays the role coffee does here: Burmese eat tea leaf salad any time they want a pick-me-up. The caffeine content is high enough that it will keep some people awake at night if eaten too late in the day. For a caffeine-free alternative, try the gin dok (ginger salad), essentially the same dish made from pickled ginger instead of tea leaves. The ginger's like a drier, saltier, shredded version of what you get with sushi, and has a nice tart/sour flavor (no lime needed). Whichever salad you order, eat it promptly: If it sits around, the peas, garlic, and lettuce lose their crunch and get mushy.

The menu translates Burma's national dish, moh hinga, as "fish chowder," but that's a bit misleading. By the time it's served, the flaky white fish has completely melted into the rich, assertively fishy broth, which is spooned over thin rice noodles and garnished with pieces of crunchy yellow-split-pea fritters. If you like strong fish flavors, you'll love this; if you don't, try the chicken coconut soup. It's rich and mild, similar to Thai tom ka gai, but not as spicy as you'd expect from the dots of red oil floating on top, with lots of thick, round noodles. Both these soups really need the traditional accompaniment of limes and cilantro to provide a fresh, bright element; again, ask if you don't get 'em.

A daily special of noodles with dried shrimp was simple but good: thick, chewy noodles with a strong-flavored, distinctly spicy sauce.

The steam-table dishes are mostly what Burmese call sepyan, curry-like dishes flavored with a mortar-pounded paste of mostly fresh ingredients. "Eggs with special sauce," for example, was perfectly hard-boiled eggs in a sauce of (I think) chilis, onions, garlic, ginger, and turmeric, much like a Cambodian sambal — this may not sound exciting, but it was really, really good. "Fish cake in special sauce" had a ham-like flavor, like the fish might have been smoked or somehow cured like ham, in a sauce much like the egg dish. Pork curry was similar to Indonesian rendang: Chunks of meat were simmered until they'd thoroughly absorbed the flavor of the very spicy sauce. Fish with tamarind was an exception to the curry trend: Small fillets were simmered in a tart oily orange sauce with relatively delicate hints of onion and chili.

Those steam-table dishes are served with an ample serving of white rice — perfectly cooked on three visits — and your choice of two Burmese side dishes. "Fried sour leaves" is dominated by roselle, a tart-tasting type of hibiscus best known in this country by its Jamaican name, sorrel (no relation to the more common green herb). The roselle is sautéed with julienned bamboo shoots, a few shrimp, pickled tiny green hot peppers, and fish sauce, resulting in an intensely sour, salty, spicy condiment that is delicious with plain rice. The alternative, "yellow pea," is a simple dish of chickpeas cooked with lots of onions but not much in the way of spices: bland, sweet, and oddly reminiscent of American baked beans.

A caveat for those with disabilities: The place looks like it was at one time ADA-compliant, and even has one of those wheelchair-logo electric door openers at the entrance. Unfortunately, an inappropriately placed refrigerator narrows the access to the restroom so that most chairs could not pass.

Great food, low prices, friendly no-frills service — the only big minus about Larkin Express is that it's open only for lunch. Despite the neighborhood's massive daytime population of government workers and law students, street parking is fairly easy, since most spaces are limited to one hour. Service is deli-style quick, so there's no problem in finishing your lunch before the meter expires. It's also just 4 1/2 blocks from the Civic Center BART/Muni station.

Larkin Express is half-empty most of the afternoon, so for a relaxed meal, it's best to go for a late lunch. If you're lucky, business will be slow enough that the gregarious owner will stop by to chat and offer you extra tastes and a cup of Burmese tea. Enjoy!

About The Author

Robert Lauriston


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