I was tacking into a brisk headwind on College Point Boulevard—the eastern edge of the muddy garage-and-manufacturing district F. Scott Fitzgerald dubbed the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby—when a red awning caught my eye. The name of the place was uninspiring: Thai Food House. There are so many new Thais in town, I’ve stopped keeping track. But the flapping fabric also proclaimed Burmese. Now, Burmese restaurants are as scarce as hen’s teeth, so that come-on was more than enough to drag me inside.
Once the menu was spread before me in the brightly lit café, which was decorated with quilted silver elephants and red paper lanterns, I began to salivate more profusely. In addition to standard northern Thai fare (tart meat salads, Chinese-y noodle soups) and Burmese chow (curries with flatbreads, tea leaf and ginger salads), there was a section devoted to Yunnan food. That may seem like a strange combination, unless you pull out your atlas and see that the Chinese province of Yunnan is near the borders of Burma, Laos, and Thailand. There were Malaysian and Cantonese sections too, which sounded like more of a stretch.
Cradled in romaine, decorated with a single purple orchid, the Yunnan pork salad ($9.95) was gorgeous to look at, featuring rubbery slices of meat in a sweet-sour dressing lavished with pickled garlic, green onions, crushed peanuts, cilantro, and fiery sliced chiles of small circumference. Though Yunnan staples like soy-braised elephant trunk and fried grasshoppers were regrettably absent, there was a sour whole fish bubbling in a metal contraption ($18.95), and a salad of something called yellow bean curd. More Jell-O than tofu, the wobbly squares had serrated edges, making them look like they’d been cut with pinking shears. The taste and texture of the bean curd, served cold, was merely interesting, but one evening the waitress brought us a heaping plate battered and deep-fried. Treated this way, the parchment-colored curd turns semi-liquid, shooting into your mouth like—well, never mind. “That is what Chinese living in Burma really enjoy eating,” the waitress said with a twinkle in her eye.
The Burmese menu is perfunctory, but you can get a tasty ginger salad ($6.95) and a small dish of chicken curry with a multi-layer paratha that will remind you of Malaysian roti canai, only coarser. Some of the most astonishing dishes come from the Malaysian menu. One day we observed a quartet of pink-sweatered ladies digging into a platter of what looked like ground pork. When we requested our own serving, it turned out to be a very strange creation—jumbo prawns, still in possession of their heads, rising up like high-fiving basketball players in a warm Matterhorn of finely cut oats and sesame seeds, tasting like a crumbled oatmeal cookie. The grain imparted a sweet flavor to the crunchy prawns as they cooked in the wok. Once you’ve picked out the prawns, treat the oats like dessert.
The dish, called oat shrimp ($19.95), proved un-Googleable, but a California friend said it was similar to things he’d encountered in Hong Kong restaurants. It makes sense that the English introduced oats to Hong Kong, and this is just the sort of dish—we thought as we scooped up the last delicious cookie bite—that Manhattan chefs might emulate, if only they knew about it.