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Burma Love: Burma Superstar's Latest Brings Its Beloved Dishes to Valencia 

Wednesday, Feb 11 2015
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It's easy to take Burmese food for granted when you live in the Bay Area, which has the biggest Burmese population in the United States, according to 2010 census numbers. A Chowhound contributor recently did the math to discover that there are upwards of 30 restaurants with a whole or partial menu dedicated to Burmese food in the Bay — Los Angeles and New York only have a handful between them. When I first moved here, it blew me away that I could enjoy food from the country of Myanmar, formerly Burma, a cuisine that draws from its neighboring countries of India, Thailand, and China, whenever I wanted. Now, of course, it's been gradually assimilated into what I consider "normal," although, like most things in San Francisco, it's not that for the rest of the country.

There are countless fights on Chowhound and other review sites over which Burmese restaurant in the Bay Area is the best. Is it the super-authentic, hole-in-the-wall Little Yangon down in Daly City? The much-lauded Mandalay in the Outer Richmond? Burmese Kitchen, which recently closed in the Tenderloin but rose from the ashes with a pop-up in the Inner Richmond? The one thing that everyone agrees on is that the most visible is the Burma Superstar, the populist restaurant that has snapped up most of the accolades, appeared on the Food Network, and spread to five locations around the Bay Area. Its most recent is Burma Love, which opened on upper Valencia right before the new year.

Waits regularly top an hour at Burma Superstar's original location, which has been a fixture on Clement Street for more than 20 years. The restaurant's upscale-ish Southeast Asian atmosphere is pleasant enough, but the crowds are there for the food, especially the tea leaf salad and noodle dishes made with a subtle coconut curry. Its new Mission location is much hipper, with an orange- and cream-colored tile pattern along the walls and tree stumps near the tables meant to hold your personal effects. There's a long bar, which will serve well for overflow and will serve cocktails when the full liquor license comes through (right now it's just wine, sake, and beer, including a lovely, lemongrass- and coriander-infused brew made specially for the restaurant by Oakland's Ale Industries). Though entrees approach $20, it still feels casual — just nice-casual, the equivalent of the Hayes Valley and Mission Lers Ros outposts.

Most of the menu is imported from Burma Superstar and its sister bar, B*Star, and the favorites are well-represented. The tea leaf salad is still mixed tableside, and if it's a few dollars more than it is in the Avenues, it's still great, with a bright acidity from the lemon, a tang from the imported tea leaves, and a crunch from fried lentils, sesame seeds, and garlic. You could do much worse than a light dinner at the bar with one of these salads and a nice glass of wine.

Mohinga, the curry catfish stew that is the national dish of Myanmar, is also comforting here, with a dull heat that seeps into the soul and is tempered only slightly by the chewy rice noodles. Do doctor it with the lemon and chili pepper flakes that accompany it — they bring out the sour notes of the broth and turn it from something ordinary into something exceptional. Old favorites like the pratha bread, coconut curry noodles, and sweet-and-hot shrimp curry all make appearances, and all are solid renditions of ditties you've heard before, if a few dollars more expensive than you've paid in the past. (The restaurant claims this is due to its use of organic ingredients, which may be true, but it's hard to believe that the Duboce and Valencia location doesn't factor into it.)

The interesting part of the group's new restaurant is the homey dishes that aren't on the menu anywhere else, such as the duck curry — two duck legs in a curry with potatoes and carrots, like a Burmese version of an old-fashioned English beef stew. The curry wasn't super-spicy or assertive but it had a deep, full flavor that went well with the roundness of the duck. Another exciting new item was the whole, deep-fried fish in a sticky-sweet sauce with just a tinge of heat. The fish was a tad overdone, and it was messy to excavate with just the knife and fork provided by the servers, but it was a stunning centerpiece and the fillets were still moist and full of flavor.

Spicy noodles were the only new dish that didn't work at all: a riff on pad Thai, but way too sweet and almost ketchupy, with none of the heat that was promised by the name.

Because of its prominence in the S.F. dining scene, there has been a lot of chatter over the years around whether Burma Superstar is overrated or underrated. My opinion has always been that it's simply rated: pretty good, consistent food in a buzzy atmosphere, a place I often take out-of-towners to introduce them to the delights of Burmese food. Though the Mission has an embarrassment of good Indian, Mexican, Japanese, Vietnamese, Salvadoran, and other restaurants, before Burma Love the best option for Burmese food was Yamo, the 18th Street hole-in-the-wall that could quench a curry-noodle craving but wasn't great for sit-down.

It's tempting to read Burma Love's move to Valencia, and the higher prices that accompany the move, as something sinister, yet another indication of the slow seep of the tech industry's influence on the city. But in my mind, it's just surprising the restaurant hasn't been there all along.

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About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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