Mission of Burma


New York has trouble hanging onto its Burmese restaurants. Eight years ago, there were 10 in town, four south of 14th Street. The number has sadly dwindled, and now I count only three citywide. The oldest is Village Mingala, located a beer bottle’s throw from McSorley’s. I’d eaten there a couple of times a few years back and found the food greasy and uninspired. But passing the place on the way to a Dismemberment Plan gig with a famished group of friends tired of eating Chinese food, we decided to take a chance.

Now, as then, the menu is way too long, demonstrating that a place like this survives by diversifying. Mingala comes by this diversity honestly, though, since Burmese cooking incorporates the food of neighbors China, India, and Thailand. The influence of the first two is particularly profound—since the deposition of King Thibaw in 1885, there has been a massive migration from those kingdoms, which explains why, until recently, most restaurants in Myanmar were Chinese or Indian. Traditional Burmese fare was more likely to be found in the homes of private citizens and street-vendor stalls.

To go to the heart of Myanmar cuisine, stick to the curries, noodles, and salads. Burmese curries are simpler than their Indian counterparts, spiced with onions, fresh ginger, chile powder, garlic, and turmeric ground into a gravy-thickening paste. Sometimes sesame oil imparts a Chinese-y twist. A correctly made curry is called “see byan,” which means the oil has separated. Beef curry ($8.50) is the best at Village Mingala, sporting dark brown gravy, tender chunks of boneless meat, and small potatoes bobbing like white skulls. Some Welsh pals particularly admired this curry, which does indeed taste almost like a well-made beef stew. You can also get a smaller serving for $7.50, accompanied by a buttery paratha hyperbolically called “thousand layer pancake.”

The restaurant has the city’s most interesting catalog of noodles, most priced at $6.95 for a prodigious serving. Chief on any Burmese list is mohinga, a street hawker staple of rice angel-hair pasta in a fish broth thickened with coconut milk. Village Mingala must be given high marks for presenting this concoction in all its skanky glory. Easier to love is the provocatively named panthy kow swear—thick wheat noodles, vegetables, and bean curd smeared with an agreeable Indian spice paste. A friend who’s been an avid customer for over a decade touts garlicky Rangoon night-market noodles, featuring spaghetti in a dark, duck-dotted sauce.

Known as thokes, the salads tend to be heaps of shredded cabbage, carrots, and onions in a lemony dressing, given added crunch with peanuts, toasted yellow split peas, and sesame seeds. These slaws vary only slightly, whether mango, shrimp, tofu, or tender young ginger shoots are the main ingredient of record. The most famous of these is green tea leaf salad ($6.95). The leaves—which are traditionally preserved by pressing them in a jar and burying them near a river—impart a pleasing astringency. Unfortunately, Village Mingala doesn’t use enough of them. On home turf, this salad is eaten as a dessert, and is thought to stimulate intelligent conversation just as a cup of tea might. We tried it one evening, but—no luck!