Trip across the concrete footbridge that spans the gulf between sidewalk and café, and—bang!—you’re in Burma. Lace curtains screen out the traffic under the el on Roosevelt Avenue, and the walls are lined with tapestries of lumbering elephants done in silver and gold thread. Twin clocks indicate that it’s 8 p.m. in New York and 7:30 a.m. in Rangoon, the capital of the country sometimes known as Myanmar. Dancing along one wall are gilded marionettes, while a life-size golden Buddha with imperially long fingers lights up the end of the room, right beside the swinging doors into the kitchen. “This food is fuckin’ incredible,” I exclaimed to my pals as we dug into the pork curry, which was flinging off pungent odors of ginger, garlic, and onions.
Not since tiny Yamona in nearby Woodside closed a decade ago have we had a really great Burmese restaurant in town. Painted like a hawker stall, a sign outside offers colorful bowls of curry, and curries you shall have. So central are curries to the cuisine that Burmese Cafe offers variant versions for individual meats. Sour pork curry ($4.99) comes floundering in red oil, a tamarind-laced sludge of tender porcine chunks of irregular size. Find a luscious piece of skin here, a clump of fat there, and even the occasional bone. It’s so nice to leave groomed bistro meat far behind. The sweet pork curry ($4.99) is not really sweet, but denser and darker than the sour version, reminiscent of a Punjabi curry without the powdered spices. And on a later visit, we were in for a delicious surprise: A third pork curry was offered as a special, wherein the same meat chunks wrestled with swatches of acidic green-mango pickle. It, too, was irresistible.
Pork is only the start of a curry list that includes beef (moist and soft), goat (tough and powerfully flavorful), chicken, fish, “steam fish,” and—a pleasant contrast to all the rest—a vegetable called roselle. Elsewhere in the world, the plant is known as hibiscus; here in the U.S., we call it “Red Zinger Tea.” A menu section titled “Burmese Style Chinese Food” features even more curries, including two contrasting river-eel recipes. Go for the “hot and dry eel” ($8.99), a steaming stir fry of gnarly fish nuggets and al dente onions coated with an oily spice rub. The Chinese menu is worth considering on its own, especially for the fried chicken ($6.99), prettily ringed with pickled vegetables.
Other pillars of the menu are fritters and some very unusual salads. Cut in long strips, the squash fritters ($4.99) arrive piping hot, coated with a light bubbly batter and accompanied by a tomato dipping sauce zapped with cilantro. The eggplant fritters are constructed along similar lines, while the gram fritters are a world apart: lentil pincushions with a nutty flavor. While many dishes show an Indian or Chinese influence, the salads are uniquely Burmese, and not to be missed. Tea leaf salad ($5.99) is a giant mop-head of shredded veggies, sesame seeds, fried gingko bits, toasted peanuts, and dried micro-shrimp—an awesome assault of crunchiness. By tradition, the tea leaves have been packed in an earthenware jug and buried near a river for a few months, developing an astringent, fermented flavor. Burmese folks consume the salad for dessert as a caffeine-bearing stimulant. It’s like eating a double espresso.