Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) Photo courtesy: Richard Shaw
I find it interesting how certain memories from ones’ childhood endure over time. Living in Calcutta (now Kolkata) as a child, my first entre to Burmese food was ‘Khauswey’- chicken stewed in a gravy redolent with coconut milk, onions and turmeric. It would be served either over egg noodles (traditional) or rice (completely non-traditional) and I remember literally licking our plates clean when it was on the dinner menu. For us, it was sufficiently different from traditional Indian food, to become very enticing and almost a novelty. It wouldn’t be till years later, and half a world away, that I would be reintroduced to Burmese food; this time in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Burma by the Bay
In 1962 the Burmese army overthrew the ruling government in a coup. The political and economic turmoil that resulted led a number of Burmese to resettle elsewhere. Aided by the United States Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and the subsequent removal of restrictions on immigration from Asia, a large number of Burmese found their way to America. Decades later, as a result of the government crackdown following the 1988 uprising against the junta, another wave of Burmese landed on American shores. Missing their way of life in the ‘old country’, some decided to cater to the growing Burmese diaspora in the Bay Area and open Burmese restaurants. Burma Superstar in the inner-Richmond district was the first restaurant that actually put Burmese cuisine on the San Francisco culinary map. The number of Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area has since skyrocketed.
William Lue immigrated to the Bay Area in the 70’s. A Burmese of Chinese origin, he worked in Chinese and Burmese restaurants in San Francisco through the 70’s and 80’s. Following a lengthy hiatus, he returned to the food industry with a Burmese food truck, Burmese Gourmet in 2012. Since then he has opened a string of Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area including Pacheco Bistro in Martinez, Refined Palate in Orinda, T.W. Burmese in San Ramon and Grocery Café in Oakland. As an immigrant, promoting his culinary heritage and helping other Burmese immigrants assimilate rank high on his list of aims, and he uses his restaurants effectively for that purpose.
Grocery Café entrance
The current incarnation of Grocery Café in Jack London Square in Oakland sits in a venue vacated by a Hahn’s hibachi, a popular Bay Area Korean chain. The original restaurant was elsewhere in Oakland, but forced to move due to extensive modifications called for by the health department. The new larger venue is bright, airy and inviting and a brief glance at the menu assures me that none of the standards have been omitted.
The Hahn’s BBQ sign hasn’t been completely removed
The interior still maintains the Hahn’s vibe, though the food is dramatically different.
Sandwiched between India, China and Thailand, Burmese cuisine is an amalgamation of the three cuisines, yet very distinct. Turmeric and onion are almost ubiquitous flavors and nowhere is this combination more evident than in the national dish of Burma- Mohinga, a noodle based fish chowder. Also well known are the salads or ‘thoke’, in particular laphet or tea leaf salad made with fermented tea leaves. The version at Grocery Café is slightly Americanized, in that lettuce is added to the mix. We started with the Burmese Paratha, a multi-layered Indian-inspired flatbread with a curry dipping sauce and then moved on to Khao Swe thoke, a noodle salad with a curried coconut dressing and condiments on the side.
Paratha and curry dipping sauce
Khao Swe Thoke
What about the ‘khauswey’ of my childhood? The Ono Khao Swe came in a big bowl with wheat noodles and chicken swimming in a fragrant mild curry broth, accompanied with fried shallots and lentil fritters (referred to as exotic fritter in the menu).
Ono Kahao Swe
Accompaniments to the Ono Khao Swe
The flavors were spot on taking me back to my childhood and we pretty much licked the bowl clean…. some things never change! And if one wants a little more spice, 2 kinds of chili pepper condiments, green and red are provided to kick things up a notch.
Chili pepper condiments
Though I didn’t see it on the tables, ‘ngapi’ or fermented fish paste is apparently available upon request as a condiment. The other dish we could not pass up on the menu was the oxtail stew, a fragrant stew with kabocha squash, sliced ginger and mushrooms. The Chinese influence was evident in this dish, with the ginger and the mushrooms, but the addition of bay leaves gave the dish an identity all of its own.
It was served with a mound of coconut rice, not entirely dissimilar from the Indonesian Nasi Lemak.
The restaurant does not currently have a liquor license, though a number of tables in the know decided to B.Y.O.B. I don’t believe they charge any corkage fees either, and a nice crisp Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc would compliment the food perfectly! They do, however, serve a selection of Burmese and Chinese teas for those so inclined.
Burmese restaurants have matured in the Bay Area and are now considered a viable alternative to the more traditional Chinese and Thai. And with folks like Lue promoting the cuisine of their homeland, the buzz will only increase. For a taste of Yangon, Grocery Café is just a short hop over the Bay Bridge for San Franciscans and well worth the effort.
90 Franklin St,
Oakland, CA 94607