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Christmas Day Burmese: Mandalay Restaurant (Richmond District)

The colorful exterior of Richmond District's long-standing Mandalay Restaurant
I always enjoy finding out what restaurants are available whenever traveling to a new region of the country, especially in relation to a style of food or cuisine that is otherwise not readily available where I live. I would advise adventurous food folks coming from San Francisco to Columbus seek out and try a West African restaurant. For those traveling from Columbus to the Bay Area, I'd recommend dropping by one of the Bay Area's Burmese restaurants for a meal.

For those unfamiliar with the cuisine, Burmese food combines the styles and flavorings of Thai, Indian and Chinese cuisines into dishes that may seem familiar visually but do not quite strictly conform palate-wise. A number of purveyors of Burmese cuisine are spread throughout the Bay Area, with perhaps the most well-known being Burma Superstar. If you are a beginner to the cuisine, this mini-chain of restaurants in the Bay Area is actually a decent place to get your culinary tongues familiar with the unique flavor and texture profiles of Burmese cuisine.

If you're ready to explore further, or just want to dive in a little more full-on into Burmese, Mandalay Restaurant in the Richmond District would be a fine choice. Now something of a Christmas Day tradition for us, Mandalay (opened in 1984) bills itself as the first Burmese restaurant in San Francisco; one does get the impression that this is a place that has built up its following by simply doing their thing and doing it both well and at a reasonable price (most dishes are in the $7 to $12 range, with a few outliers on the higher end of the scale.)

Our two visits to Mandalay have been completely contrasting in regards to atmosphere, mainly affected by weather. Our first visit, on a somewhat cold, damp day, saw us enjoying their food in a nearly empty space. On the latest visit on Christmas Day, the beautiful weather had brought everyone out of their houses to enjoy the outdoors; Mandalay was packed despite our arrival at an early afternoon hour.

The brightly appointed interior, plus other random Mandalay sights
You really can't do a Burmese restaurant without at least trying one of the featured salads. The most well-known of these is the tea-leaf salad, which combines a plethora of ingredients (one such example is detailed with this recipe) that eventually ends up to be a unique combination of crunch and chew, salty, tang and fermented notes that is hard to describe appropriately with words but somehow all works on your tastebuds. Many Burmese places I've visited will have your waitperson explain the ingredients in the salad before hand-mixing them on the plate prior to serving.

My spouse didn't quite know what to make of her first sampling of such at Burma Superstar the first time out, but Mandalay's version provided that bridge for her to truly appreciate its unique character (I was already a fan from previous samplings.) If nothing else, Mandalay's version is a much more pungent version than other restaurant versions: it is devoid of filler ingredients such as lettuce and cabbage and goes strictly with the fermented tea leaves. This brings that fermented and fishy qualities much more to the forefront, something I appreciated compared to others I have tried. Another fine option is a Rainbow Salad, which combines a different set of ingredients (see this link to Burma Superstar's version) to create a unique calvacade of flavors.

On a previous visits, the appetizers have treated us well - the balada, a fried pancake served with a thick curry dipping sauce, was a definite winner; their samusas also are tasty, with a curry-laden mix of beef and potatoes inside a crispy fried pastry shell. Their Moo Hin Nga (Fish Chowder) soup more than holds its own, with its combo of noodles, ground catfish, onions, and cilantro in a flavorful broth.

Clockwise (from top): Nan Gyi Dok, Mandalay Chicken, and
their Tea Leaf Salad in preparation mode

Burmese-oriented noodle dishes are also worth exploring: on a previous visit, their Mandalay Special Noodle and the Nan Gyi Dok hold very similar unique taste profiles with hints of coconut, pea, lime and onion along with a tamarind dressing, the main difference between the two being the noodle type. For a slightly different flavor combo, try the Kaw Soi Dok, which offers toasted egg noodles with fried onion and garlic chips, cucumber slices, split beans and the chef's special dressing.

The Mandalay Chicken dish I ordered on the last visit reminded me of a standard sweet and sour meat Chinese dish, but done in a way that made it not quite so (in a good way, mind you.) In general, this dish and Mandalay's other Chinese-styled dishes on their menu (Singapore Style Noodles and Mu Shu Pork, for example) can provide an avenue for restaurant goers who aren't enamored of Burmese flavor profiles to enjoy Mandalay's cuisine.

With that said, my spouse and I have no such qualms about the unique flavor profiles of Burmese cuisine, and Mandalay is as close to a regular visit for us when we're on the West Coast as any other place.

Mandalay Restaurant
4348 California St (Inner Richmond)
San Francisco, CA 94118
(415) 386-3895 - or- (415) 386-3896
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Mandalay on Urbanspoon

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