I came upon an opportunity to experience Burmese food for the first time and I was not disappointed.
Brief History of Myanmar
Myanmar’s government was under the control of the military junta from 1962 to 2015, and they renamed the country Myanmar in 1989. Myanmar’s neighbor countries are Thailand, China, Bangladesh, Laos and India.
Coming to America
In 1988 demonetization wiped out most people’s savings and riots broke out in the country. The political uprising resulted in the military killing over three thousand civilians and thousands fleeing the country, including Saw Myint and his family. Saw, now seventy three years old, is the patriarch of the Myint family. In 1989 they arrived in Silver Spring, where a friend helped them out. Saw worked for the U.S. government ten years prior, so he knew the country fairly well.
Mandalay, from Myanmar to Maryland
After settling in and making this country their new home, Saw’s three sons came to him and asked about the prospect of starting a family business, thus allowing them to apply for their own green card when they aged out. At the time, there was a donut shop in College Park for sale, which the Myint family decided to buy. Saw asked his wife, Hla Hme, to cook at the donut shop in order to expand the menu to include Burmese food. They later decided to get rid of the donut portion of the restaurant and serve Burmese food exclusively. This led to the establishment of Mandalay Restaurant & Café, named after the second-largest city and the last royal capital of Myanmar. It was costly to get the restaurant up and running. The Myint family used their savings to buy necessities every month. Fortunately, business picked up quickly once the restaurant opened up; a lot of people were willing to come no matter the weather. Saw felt relief seeing a full house on the first day they opened and knew they would survive. What helped drive in more customers was serendipitous publicity, all unsolicited and free. The restaurant was featured in newspapers and on the radio.
In 2003 the restaurant moved to its current location, Bonifant Street in downtown Silver Spring. Although it is a multiethnic area, this is the only Burmese food restaurant in Maryland. It’s a family-owned and operated business. The Myint family includes first, second and third generation Americans of Burmese origin. Everyone pitches in. On the floor nearly every day you can see Joe and Aung, Saw’s sons. Hla Hme runs a tight ship in the kitchen. Saw works in the front, and enjoys chatting with customers and friends who are regulars. They also have a full service bar and TV.
Authentic Burmese Food
Patrons from different ethnic origins enjoy the food at Mandalay. Any dish can be made as spicy as you like, but even without the "hot," every dish is full of flavor. The taste of Burmese food is influenced by Myanmar’s neighbor countries—Thailand, India, China—but the food has a distinct Burmese taste of its own. The food is authentic, but a lot less oil is used than food served in Myanmar. Americans who visited Myanmar said the food is better here, without all that oil. The food is usually served with fresh ingredients, often including vegetables and tropical fruits. There are soups, curries, stir-fried noodles, meat and seafood dishes. I enjoyed eating the Burmese samosas (potato, onion, green peas), mango salad (green mango, cabbage, onion, carrots and Burmese dressing), Nyat KaukSwe Gyaw (flat rice noodles stir-fried with chicken, bean sprouts, lettuce, and ground peanuts). MoHingar soup is Myanmar’s national soup. Peanuts give the soup its brownish tint. It has rice noodles, pureed catfish, and a side of fried zucchini, to be absorbed in the soup and/or dipped in sauce consisting of lime juice and chili pepper. OhnNo KaukSwe soup are egg noodles with chicken strips in creamy coconut soup; naturally sweet because of the coconut. Grounded chana dal beans give it the yellow color. I also ate one of the vegetarian options, soft tofu sautéed with sour mustard, onion and fresh cilantro. It is salty when eaten alone, but mixed with rice gives it a balanced flavor. There are two vegan dessert options, the sticky rice with brown sugar and coconut and coconut ice cream. Shweji is Myanmar’s national dessert, made with cream of wheat, coconut cream, sugar, eggs, milk, raisins, and topped with poppy seeds. This dessert is so good I had two servings of it! Saw said it converted one customer who disliked cream of wheat as a kid. Mandalay’s schweji won the 2009 Washingtonian award for being “reason number four to live in Washington D.C.” Each customer has their own favorite dish, but no one dislikes anything, according to an informal survey. Mandalay has received a number of accolades over the years from prestigious newspapers such as The Washington Post, Washingtonian, The Gazette. Zagat and TripAdvisor also gave “excellent” marks. The food has been described as “lighter than most Indian dishes but more flavorful than Thai.”
Giving Back to Myanmar
After nearly thirty years in the U.S., the Myint family still thinks of their home country often and regularly gives back. “Gotta do something” is Saw’s motto. In 2001 Saw helped establish a local health clinic for mid-wives to deliver babies in five villages, and helped provide safe drinking water. In 2008 a cyclone hit, the worst natural disaster in recorded history of Myanmar. The restaurant raised $17,000 to give to those most affected by the cyclone. In 2011, $70,000 was raised and donated to people most affected by the floods.
After nearly twenty years, Mandalay Restaurant & Café is firmly rooted as a successful business more than ever. The Myint family thought of what they could do after their lease is up next year so they could be more financially independent. Saw’s son, Aung, proposed the family have an additional restaurant, a salad restaurant similar to sweetgreen and Chopt, but serving distinct Burmese salads. He said, “Our salad is different from any salad.” This restaurant, Bandoola Bowl, will be located in Georgetown. They will mainly serve an array of salads, some of which will be fixed recipes and some which customers can choose their own ingredients. Mandalay will still be in business but relocate to D.C. next year. If you have not had Burmese food, I highly recommend you do. If you are fortunate enough, may your first experience be at Mandalay Restaurant & Café.
My thanks to Saw Myint for his hospitality, treating me and my family to an assortment of Burmese food dishes. I am also grateful to him for opening up and sharing the information contained in this article.
Mandalay Restaurant & Café
930 Bonifant Street
Silver Spring, MD 20910
(301) 585 0500