Monthly Archives: September 2015

DC’s best sandwich: The new American cuisine of Farmers, Fishers, and Bakers

Stop by Washington, D.C.’s Farmers Fishers and Bakers for the best (vegetarian) sandwich in the city. It is a meal, much like many of its fellow menu items, that is emblematic of the city’s wholly American integration of its multicultural influences.

If I had to pick a restaurant that truly represents Washington, D.C. and the America of its residents, I would pick Founding Farmers and its sister restaurant, Farmers Fishers Bakers (FFB). Their similar menus’ fusion cuisine – influenced by a wide range of inherently pan ‘American,’ European, and African styles – exemplifies Washington’s cosmopolitan, educated melting pot of transplants from both across and outside of the USA. Washingtonians may see themselves and their adopted city – well-groomed and presentation-conscious, traditional yet adaptive, diverse and transient, working to be. I mean this in the most loving sense of the description.

Whether you, reader, have scoped out Washington’s restaurant scene as a resident or visitor, Founding Farmers is likely to have popped up on your list. With its broad appeal and the packed tables to prove it, these four restaurants have lost some of the buzz the brand garnered a few years ago, but each of the Founding Farmers iterations are worth a visit – or a few.

Farmers Fishers and Bakers is my top choice of the bunch. FFB is located in the ‘horseshoe’ Washington Harbor complex at the Georgetown Waterfront. From its outdoor tables and looking out through its large, wall-to-wall windows, one can people watch groups passing through the complex, skating on its winter rink, playing in its summer fountains, or watching you from the popular outdoor bars of neighboring Sequoia and Tony and Joe’s. But the people watching quickly takes a backseat when their fun, internationally-inspired-yet-truly-American cocktails and food arrives.

 

purple kale salad

 
From sashimi to mussels, meatloaf to vegetarian cauliflower steak, and southern ham hock with succotash to purple kale salad, its expansive menu offers something for every taste. For such breadth, FFB delivers well.

But for all the fanfare, my favorite menu item is its vegetarian sandwich. It would be easy to miss it on the menu, as its title and description cannot do it justice and relegate it to the token sandwich for vegetarians. I urge you, reader, to consider it, should you venture to FFB. It is the best vegetarian sandwich – dare I say best of any sandwich, meat or not – I’ve ever had. It starts with a sweet, thick raisin-walnut bread that pulls its own weight, paired with a salty brie, roasted red peppers, avocado, sprouts, and tomato. It needs no dressing, sauce, or spread. It pairs well with a light, tangy peanut cabbage slaw as a choice of included side dish. In its simplicity, its sweet-salty-earthy contrast, Washington meets California with the best of both coasts in this meal (pictured above).

This is my love letter to Washington, D.C., the city that has inspired and written my own story for over a decade of my life.

That time I ate crocodile at Victoria Falls

There’s nothing like an exotic safari and near-death experience to make one open-minded about food. Travel back with me to the time I ventured to eat crocodile in Southern Africa.

Zambia 2010 002Zambia 2010 006

Victoria Falls is one of the world’s great natural wonders. The wide Zambezi River thunders majestically along the borders of four countries: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia. Its surrounding flood plains and savannahs provide hospitable, seasonal refuges for testy hippos and crocodiles, elephant and antelope, hyenas, zebras, and even large cats.

Zambia 2010 022
It is a great place for safaris, and I was fortunate to experience one for myself. Staying near the Falls and Livingston, Zambia, it took a combination of bus, boat, foot (border crossing), and wagon just to start our Botswana safari. We kicked off the safari with a pontoon boat tour of the river that separates Botswana from a skinny slice of Namibia.


My colleague and I befriended a mixed group of Americans and Aussies, three of whom had amazing new digital cameras to shoot promotional material for a large camera manufacturer. We reveled at the ubiquitous hippos and crocodiles, as well as a few elephants bathing in riverside ponds.
After a buffet lunch that skewed Italian, our bunch made our way to guided Jeep land tours. Hoping to catch a rare November glimpse of a big cat, we weren’t successful, but we saw antelope and related species frolic, along with numerous birds, and elephants peacefully grazing nearby. Or so we thought.


A sudden thunderstorm arose. Here’s something to know about Elephants: They absolutely lose their (expletive) with thunderstorms. If you’ve ever seen a dog or horse panic with thunder, that has nothing on elephants. Because when a particularly loud clap of thunder shook our patch of earth from less than a mile away, probably every elephant in the area – males, females, and babies – took off running. No, stampeding. As in what you read in books when you are a curious child, never envisioning that it actually does happen in the wild.
A herd of elephants stampeding unidirectionally is a truly amazing and frightening thing. It is the sort of event that you don’t appreciate the full magnitude until after the fact. But when elephants began to swarm and crowd our Jeep, which stood between them and safety, our guide and driver froze, telling us not to move or make noise. No words, just freeze. The rest of us were silent, thinking, uh oh…if HE’S scared, and he does this almost daily, maybe we should worry. With the engine off and our obnoxious tourists’ dialogue ground to a halt, the stillness in the pre-rain air, the sound of strangely fast elephants lumbering through the underbrush and dust, the smell of rain in the not so far distance – it provided an eerie moment and reminder of the awe, beauty, and danger in nature.
Two minutes later, the vast majority of maybe 60 elephants had passed us without incident, running away from the river. We then turned around and slowly gained speed to get the heck out of there. We made it safely back to our wagons, then boats, then to the Zambian border, where I almost was detained because I’d made the mistake of a single-entry visa. Oops. A few phone calls later, we were allowed to return to Zambia and the comfort of our hotel. The day’s events certainly conjured up an appetite for dinner. Choosing to splurge on a sumptuous buffet, we sampled a range of what I call “safe” dishes cooked to appeal to the typical international traveler – African resort-ified versions of European and American standbys. If course, being an exotic destination for the average guest, the hotel also offered westernized versions of African dishes, including crocodile.
Having survived an elephant stampede, I had every reason to try crocodile. Note to the casual reader: I will try almost anything vegetarian and weird, but mystery meat scares me. So while this might sound like a no-brainer to many of you, it was not to me.
So I was pleasantly surprised at the tenderness and turkey-like flavor of the crocodile. It was easy to forget I was eating a scaly, carnivorous reptile capable of tearing me to shreds like a baby water buffalo. It was meat! It was simply grilled, allowing the flavor of the steak to stand for itself. Some say it tastes like chicken, but to me, the meat was visibly more pink, like turkey, and it had more flavor than chicken. So maybe chicken-eating crocodiles would taste like chicken…?
At any rate, the crocodile steak was much less exotic and more familiar than I would have expected. It was another reminder that our world is small, full of experiences we can all relate to as humans – well, humans with income and means. Despite my own American privilege and the shelter offered by a tourist’s bubble, I felt honored to experience this slice of Africa, its friendly and survivalist peoples, and even a crocodile steak.

Il Casaro – A cosmo-Neopolitan newcomer to San Francisco’s Little Italy

San Francisco’s Little Italy might not have the notoriety of New York’s. Within the city, it takes a backseat to SF’s more famous Chinatown. But newcomer Il Casaro is one example that proves it is worthy of the neighborhood monicker. It has added more youthful vibrance to a neighborhood steeped both in tradition and the trappings of tourism, which include several strip clubs.

When it opened in March 2014, Il Casaro attracted attention from the food media, including from industry powerhouse Eater. Public relations aside, Stopping in for a bite at this small but open, bright pizzeria, the true to form flavors and crisp, cosmopolitan ambiance will bring joy to your palate. 

  
The open dining room features a marble bar surrounding the visible oven and work area. This layout is perfect for watching the delicate clockwork with which the 3-4 cooks prepare everything from spiedini di calimari (skewers of calimari and zucchini roasted in the pizza oven) to bruschetta to fresh pastas to their signature Neapolitan pizzas.

Il Casaro serves Italian beer and an all-Italian wine list. On a hot day, the light rose I chose was perfection with both my salad and pizza.

  

Salad course

Needing a dose of vegetables, I chose the beets salad [sic] for a starter. This eye-catching salad pairs golden beets and goat cheese (the PB&J combination of the ’00s, but it still more than works) among spiky frisée and walnuts, all simply dressed in lemon juice and olive oil. It’s a synchronous combination that highlights the freshness and compatibility of each component of the dish. In my own case, I hit a stroke of good luck: My server informed me that the typical golden beets were supplemented by the fortunate purchase that morning of fresh purple beets. What a lovely, delicate plate.
Pizza Norma

Il Casaro’s menu is indicative of only small deviation from the purist’s Neapolitan pizza-making techniques. (I haven’t seen indication that any of their pizzas meet the strict standards for D.O.C certification). A fan of pizzas that skew vegetarian, I picked the Nonna (pictured in the featured image) for its eggplant and two cheeses. Its thin crust is layered first with a base of simple, but naturally sweet and tangy San Marzano tomato sauce. Salty, soft ricotta salata and fresh mozzarella offset lightly fried eggplant, the latter of which is kissed by a nutty extra virgin olive oil. Not a touch of excess grease remained, which made me very happy. Further, no single ingredient or flavor overpowered the others – a sign of a well-constructed pizza. The crust was nicely charred but not burnt, and the edges were nicely soft and chewy.
Il Casaro was a solo dining experience I more than enjoyed. For simple Neapolitan flavors in their natural habitat, and modern ambience, I’m hard-pressed to find anything for the restaurant to improve upon. I certainly will return.

Oktoberfest: De-mystifying the world’s most famous state fair

Munich, Germany’s Oktoberfest is the stuff of legend for most college students and twenty somethings in North America. It is seen as the holy grail of beer festivals, imitated, but never duplicated, every year worldwide. It is that safe, friendly environment for all to sport traditional Bavarian costumes while yelling “Prost!” and singing (or slurring) German drinking chants or folk tunes more times than anyone would care – or functionally be sober enough – to count. It is a festival so many of us aspire to attend, just once in our lifetime.

That is the myth, the legend of Oktoberfest.

The reality is a bit different. If you have ever been to a state fair or community festival, Oktoberfest is much larger and distinctly Bavarian, but it is not vastly different. It is Bavaria’s state fair and harvest festival, albeit heavily focused on beer.

Two years ago, I had the good fortune to experience The Oktoberfest for myself. Already in Europe at the start of Oktoberfest, my friends and I scrambled to find last-minute train tickets, lodging, and coordinate other logistics to make the trek to Munich for Oktoberfest’s opening weekend. Interestingly, “Oktoberfest” is a bit of a misnomer to most of us, as most of it actually takes place in September, finishing its two-week run at the start of October.

Our adventure began with a 545 am Saturday train ride. Most passengers, understandably, were quiet and groggy with sleep deprivation, aiming to nap on our way to Munich. That plan was thwarted by a group of four 70-something German men, already getting an early start to their Oktoberfest by drinking several pints of beer throughout our 3+ hour train ride. The drinking led to a continuous increase in the volume of their conversations and singing. It’s not what you want to hear when trying to nap and to this day, I’ve never heard a group of four men so loud.

It also didn’t help that I was wearing my adorable dirndl (the traditional, “beer wench”-esque female costume and foil to male lederhosen). Dirndls, with their corseted bodice and layer of crinoline for volume, aren’t terribly comfortable and limit a person to a very few comfortable seated positions.  

Arriving in Munich’s central Hauptbahnhof (main train station) mid-morning, we set off on foot directly to the fairgrounds. As we walked in the main gates, the resemblance to any large state fair in the USA was striking. Large, colorful tents, small food stands awaiting crowds in need of calorie overload – it wasn’t unfamiliar. It was strangely quiet at that hour, and it felt like we were trespassing.

The real deal is that on opening day, nothing officially begins until noon, after the opening parade and after the mayor of Munich officially opens the festival – and the taps – with a ceremonial tapping of the first keg.

    
Each large brewery/brand has its own tent. Don’t visualize a typical, temporary vinyl, white festival tent or booth. Referring to Oktoberfest’s beer houses as tents does them a disservice, as they are ornate and exquisite, combining carved wood, metal, heavy fabrics, and with plenty of large benches for seating.
If you choose to visit Oktoberfest and have advance notice, it is highly advisable to reserve seating in advance. The majority of seating in most tents is reserved; what’s left is first-come, first-served. In other words, if you have no reservation, plan on a bit of standing and waiting in line. 


If you show up without seats on Opening Day, you are wise to come early. We beelined to the Paulaner tent, which has rare outdoor seating space and table service. We made space for our groggy group at a large table shared with American tourists, a middle-aged German couple, and a few young Eastern European adults. Though it was a clear, sunny morning, it was quite chilly for dirndls, and the disappointment of having beer unavailable for another two hours was hard to overcome. Luckily, a few in our group ordered and shared a few snacks – a pretzel (which seemed a bit stale for opening day) and a flatbread.

  
After what seemed like an interminable wait, the festivities finally got underway with the start of the parade. Suddenly, our chilly outdoor seating showed its benefit. Each brewery was represented, typically with horse-driven wagons (floats) carrying enthusiastic riders waving to the crowd. The mayor passed by, and just out of our eyesight, he tapped the keg.
Waiters certainly earned their keep. As i’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m not a huge beer conoisseur, so one liter of straight beer was all I could handle before switching to a Radler – a bizarrely tasty combination of beer and orange soda.

Plied with the commoner’s social lubricant, our mood lightened. We yelled “Prost!” (The German “cheers”) out to each other and our new friends of convenience, listening also to the drinking songs of others. It was a fun afternoon, complete with a small but triumphant act of rebellion against The Man. (Who exactly is the proverbial Man will remain a mystery).

We took turns sneaking inside the tent itself. A reservation and hand stamp was required for entry, so after one friend convinced a stranger to transfer his stamp to her, we recklessly transferred the stamp between our group, over and over, as the stamp became blurrier and blurrier each time. We finally had our glimpse of the off-limits, reservation-only fun inside the packed, boisterous tent. All I can say about it was that it was crowded, loud, and slightly chaotic – not much more fun than our outdoor area. So much for the hype!We may have received a few wary looks from the bouncer types there; however, we did not get caught. Waiting in an enormous line for the WC, I again was struck by the volume of Oktoberfest goers from the U.S. and Canada. Everyone else was in the minority that afternoon.

  
By five o’clock, we were exhausted and too hungry to be satisfied for the (good) festival faire, and we headed for central Munich and “real” food. We this never did experience the true revelry and party atmosphere of a later night at Oktoberfest. Moreover, our last-minute hotel reservations took us to the far outskirts of Munich, so staying out late was just too much time and effort. 

  
The next morning, we ventured back into the city to return to Oktoberfest. Whether most of the Saturday crowd was out too late the night before, or the fact that it was Election Day for locals, we found the festival quiet again when we arrived, allowing us to snag valuable seats inside another tent.

The change of venue instantly changed our experience. Gone was the outdoor chill, replaced with the warmth of band music and occasional tent-wide chanting. By mid-day, the crowd began to pick up and the ambience became more lively.

   
Though our afternoon was forcibly cut short by our return train tickets, one of my friends and I made a point of venturing to the Nymphenberger Sekt tent (I am not making that up).
Unlike most other tents, focused on one or two of each brewery’s popular beers, the Sekt tent was dedicated almost exclusively to sparking wine – though it also offered other varieties of wine and beer on tap. Smaller than the other tents, it was more intimate but laid out like a wood-accented music hall, packing festival goers more closely. A contemporary band and wood bar added to the more sophisticated but unpretentious feel of the tent relative to the beer-centric ones.

   
My friend and I had stopped by an outdoor stand that sold skewers of chocolate dipped fruit, which we brought into the tent and paired with a bottle of Sekt for a perfect lunch. The bar, as the bar layout typically does, offered more opportunities to people watch and chat with strangers – not without Sekt jokes. In one case, we chatted with a pair of other American tourists only to learn that both happened to live in my own childhood hometown, which added to the charm and comfort of this tent. Beer purists might scoff at the idea of a tent dedicated to sparkling wine at Oktoberfest, but I felt it offered a fun alternative to the other beer-focused tents. One can only drink but so much beer, anyway!
Just when we were really enjoying ourselves, it sadly was time to leave Oktoberfest and Munich behind.
Though the entire experience was hastily planned, and it was quite different than what I had envisioned Oktoberfest to be, I was thankful to have the adventure and experience under my belt. If you have ever wanted to experience Oktoberfest for yourself, do so – but do your research and plan in advance!

Kogiya: Sharing Korean Barbecue with northern Virginia

Annandale, Virginia has the proud traditions of an established Korean immigrant community – the Asian supermarket, specialty shops, and most importantly, Korean BBQ. A relative new arrival to Annandale, family-run Kogiya has established itself quickly among its multi-ethnic clientele as a high-quality and hip purveyor of barbecued meat and other Korean dishes. Groups both young and old, international, Korean-American to Caucasian pack Kogiya even on weeknights. The hipster crowd streams in bleary-eyed for weekend late-night dining after an evening of ???? (possibly questionable) activities. 

An unassuming brick-front building from the outside, inside it has an industrial, modern Asian feel with long, dark communal tables outfitted with two grills each. Wall-mounted televisions intersperse the dining room, broadcasting several sporting events – not that one would be bored enough to take the time to watch them!
If quiet, private dining is your fancy, this atmosphere is not for you. Korean BBQ is meant to be a shared, familial experience. Though it is much more low-key than the theatrics of Japanese hibachi or the frenzy of Mongolian BBQ, Korean BBQ and Kiyogi bring people together. So should it be your first experience with this style of cooking, check your comfort zone and germophobia at the door and share the experience with your family or friends.
My introduction to Kogiya started off a bit bumpily. With an MSG sensitivity, I’m always wary of hidden MSG. When we asked our server which items had MSG, he initially noted that every item with a marinade would. Disappointed but surprised, it took a chat with one of the youthful owners to explain that Kogiya does not add MSG, but its marinades prominently feature soy sauce, which contains naturally-occurring MSG. That facet gives soy sauce its wonderfully addictive unami flavor, but thankfully for me, I’ve never had a problem with soy sauce. Sidebar: It was my introduction to soy sauce at the age of 10 that changed my food universe forever. That (expletive) is good! (It would have been earlier in life if my hypersensitive tastebuds had allowed me to be a bit more open-minded!). At any rate, Kogiya uses good quality meats and seasonings – and no added MSG.
Kogiya offers several soups, appetizers, and traditional Korean noodle dishes, but the main attractions are its barbecued meat entrees, grilled tableside. Choose from one of several mixed grill selections. The unlimited menu features its signature pork belly, chicken, spicy Bulgogi, and others. A la carte entrees are also available, but then what’s the point of BBQ if you can’t try multiple selections?
We ordered the all-beef menu: fatty brisket, Bulgogi (a marinated Korean specialty), and spicy Bulgogi sizzle atop a cast-iron pan. The pans are then replaced with grill grates, over which sesame-soy short ribs and un-marinated ribeye steak is grilled, then snipped into bite-sized chunks by servers with kitchen shears. The meats are served with three dipping sauces – a garlic-sesame oil blend, a pungent and sweet orange-soy, and tangy peanut-lemongrass(?). The spicy Bulgogi was my favorite of the five, with its sweet and tangy marinade.

Assorted pickled vegetables and accompaniments

Of course, every entree comes with a vast assortment of pickled vegetables, including bean sprouts, broccoli, seaweed, cabbage, and, of course, kimchee, which takes a strong palate or acquired taste to appreciate. (Sorry, not a fan). Two soups arrive later – a flavorful, tomato-based vegetable stew and a light, soufflé-esque egg soup.

raspberry wine

Alongside our meal, we tried a light Korean beer and a heavy, sweet Korean raspberry wine. The wine was only slightly medicinal in flavor, but it is served with shot-sized glasses not unlike those served with sake. The restaurant also serves several sakes, wines, and soju, a Korean corn liquor/wine available in several different flavors.
Kogiya – or any good neighborhood Korean BBQ joint – offers a fun, communal dining experience with a multitude of flavors. Break from quiet, stoic restaurant meals with this lively, modern take on Korean traditions.

100th Post – Sonoma, CA’s Martinelli Winery: Making me a believer in Zinfandel

Welcome to The Culinary Diplomat’s 100th post! Thank you to all of our readers – whether followers, casual readers, or a friend of myself or one of our Ambassadors (guest bloggers) clicking on a Facebook link once in a blue moon. Please keep sharing your comments, stories, and feedback about the blog. Do you have requests or suggestions for content (cuisines, recipes, particular restaurants or dishes to profile)? Thank you again to all and keep reading and recommending us to others!

Zinfandel has never been one of my favorite grapes. When it comes to California red wines, I tend to prefer Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma and Napa Counties. Big, bold, and fruity but well-rounded, I am hard-pressed to find or bother trying other varietals.

Zinfandel (NOT to be confused with the sticky sweet, blush colored White Zinfandel that I used to drink with my grandmother) usually strikes me as too acidic and tart, too middle of the road in terms of heaviness and depth of flavor.

 

View uphill from behind the Martinelli tasting room

 
One winery changed that opinion. Sonoma’s Martinelli, a family owned winery in the Russian River AVA, takes great pride in its single vineyard vintages from several small farms in Alexander Valley, as well as the neighboring Sonoma Coast AVA just to the west. With Sonoma’s wealth of microclimates, it is amazing to taste the unique characteristics from single varieties of grape cultivated just steps from one another. Soils with varying altitude, mineral composition, sunlight, and rainfall produce wines with noticeably different aromas or tasting notes.

Overall, I found Martinelli’s Zinfandels to be much richer than I remembered, with a touch of sweetness and varying berry notes. The Moonlight Ranch Zinfandel is made with the least contact with the grapes’ skin of any of the winery’s Zinfandels. This production feature not only lightens the wine’s color considerably, but it is lower in bitter tannins, bright with acidity, and sweet with the subtle aroma of strawberry. It isn’t as light as a rose, but it is light enough for poultry and excellent for a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. It paired beautifully with a soft ripened cheese and dried figs, which give it more of a cranberry-like tartness than it takes on without food.

The Lolita Ranch and Vellutini Ranch Zinfandels, in contrast, are a bit heavier, with darker cherry and blackberry notes, more minerality, and more layered tannins. If you’re not a wine snob, what the heck does that mean? You get wines that are a bit more earthy than a light Zinfandel. The acid or tartness is less pronounced, having been leveled out by the bitter tannins and more noticeable oak from the aging process. Yet the result is somehow slightly sweet for both wines. Both of these wines pair well with sharper, hard cheeses, dark chocolate, and, according to one of my good friends, a nice cigar. In the Vellutini, I tasted a bit of tobacco and a more noticeable bitterness that might be too much for a cigar. Lolita was just a bit softer and sweeter, which supposedly worked nicely with a cigar.

 

Martinelli’s library wine tasting features perfect bites for tasting

 
If you aren’t much of a wine connoisseur, this post probably sounds incredibly pretentious. As it should. But tasting good wines side by side for comparison, with a good guide to explain the wines’ history and context, as well as with food, brings out so many wonderful aromas, flavors, viscocities (basically the thickness/heaviness of the wine). Each bite of a different food pairing changes the flavor of the wine immensely. Cheese might bring out the sweetness of a heavy red wine; a dried fig or apricot might unleash new fruit flavors (really the aromas). Chocolate might soften the bitterness of the tannins and bite of the oak barrel. Almonds or other tree nuts might highlight the minerals or citrus aromas in a dry white wine.

I experienced every one of the above changes during my recent tasting at Martinelli. Lest I shortchange Martinelli’s other varietals, the winery makes nice, not too buttery Chardonnays (I’m not a Chardonnay fan), subtle, low acidity Pinot noirs, and peppery Syrahs.

Martinelli’s wines aren’t cheap; most bottles range from about US $55-$65, exclusive of taxes. I don’t generally splurge that much for a bottle of wine, since many good wines are readily available for under $20, but a truly great one like Martinelli is a wonderful experience to share with a couple of friends that appreciate a good wine.

Stay tuned for more exploration of California’s wine country in The Culinary Diplomat. Do you have a favorite wine or tasting experience to share? We welcome wine ambassadors from around the world to comment and guest post!

Burma Superstar: Proudly sharing Burmese cuisine with the San Francisco Bay Area

This post was written in coordination with guest blogger the mEAT Baron, who is perhaps Burma Superstar’s biggest fan and ardent ambassador.

Isolated Burma and its cuisine aren’t well known in the U.S., but one restaurant and its satellites is working to change that. Burma Superstar of San Francisco transports one’s taste buds to the exotic flavors of southeast Asia.

Visit any one of Burma Superstar’s four Bay Area locations – or its sister restaurant, B Star – and you’ll see why tables are often hard to come by, and even regulars wait for over an hour! Trust me though, it’s well worth the wait.

While they don’t accept reservations, call ahead and get on their wait list if you’re on your way. Otherwise, take-out is also an option. Whether you are a local or visitor, make sure to stop in for one of their lunch specials (although the full menu is available) or for dinner – but try to go early! Your taste buds will thank you, as this is truly a San Francisco foodie experience that is well worth the wait.

Each restaurant’s seating is fairly limited, so groups larger than four or five persons require a much longer wait time. We do recommend against going solo, however, because the dishes are perfectly sized for sharing and sampling. They also have large communal tables, which offer either the fun of meeting and mingling with others who are just stopping by, or an awkward dinner, depending on one’s personality and openness to adventure. What better way could you find to make new friends while enjoying exotic new dishes?

After hearing endless praise for Burma Superstar from my friend the mEAT Baron, whom you may recall as a guest blogger for the Culinary Diplomat from his post about an Indian-inspired tandoori chicken recipe, I had to try this gem for myself. He proudly touts it as his favorite restaurant in San Francisco and as a true hidden gem. With that kind of endorsement, I had no choice but to try it!

 

Burma Superstar passionately honors the country’s Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi

 
At first glance, you might recognize familiar flavors of other southeast Asian dishes – lime, mint, chili, peanuts, garlic, ginger, tea, pork, coconut, eggplant, basil, and others typical of various dishes from neighboring countries, such as Thailand, Indonesia, China, India, and Laos. Noodles, rice dishes, and soups may look familiar, but the combinations will bring new life to your favorite Asian flavors. The restaurant also is sympathetic to any dietary needs or restrictions, so don’t be shy about asking for your dish to be prepared to your liking – even if that means extra spicy.

  
An absolute must-try at Burma Superstar is the tea leaf salad. A vibrant mix of textures, ranging from crisp romaine lettuce to crunchy fried garlic, sesame seeds, tomatoes, jalapenos, and peanuts – all flavorful in their own right – but then add Burma Superstar’s special fermented tea leaf paste on top with some fresh lemon juice, and the salad becomes a transformative experience. Pungent, salty, and tangy, the tea leaves are reminiscent of a sharp bleu cheese. 

 

mixing the tea leaf salad

 
Servers mix the salad tableside, melding individual components into a refreshingly light and eye-catching starter unlike any other. The traditional salad comes with dried shrimp but can also be ordered vegetarian. 
  
Their lightly fried salt and pepper calamari might sound run-of-the-mill, but it is nothing of the sort. A sizable portion, large enough for two persons to share as a full meal, it is tender, flavorful, and served with a sweet chili dipping sauce.
 

extra spicy mint chicken

 
The spicy mint chicken is an outstanding main dish – and was the mEAT Baron’s go-to entree of choice, always opting to request it extra spicy and with extra garlic. CD note: Spicy at Burma Superstar is truly spicy. Extra spicy might have killed me, so I’m glad I ordered no extra heat in my dishes. Packed with whole red chilis and garlic cloves, surrounded by minced chicken, and flavored with a light soy sauce, the mint chicken’s burn is slow but intense. The mint adds complexity to the unique flavor. Ask for fried garlic on the side, which helps offset the heat. The fried garlic adds an entirely new layer of flavor to any dish without the bite of raw garlic.

Tip: Order a whole coconut, which comes cored and complete with a straw to drink the sweet, cooling water. That healthy treat happily reminded me of the (much cheaper) coconuts that hydrated me throughout places such as Rio de Janeiro and Mysore (India). 

  
Garlic eggplant, sauteed in a wonderful sauce, as well as their white-wine and garlic steamed broccoli are great choices for both vegetarians and carnivores alike. Both are tender and full of flavor, and like most of their dishes, they are perfect for sharing – although they’re so good, you may want to have one all to yourself.

I rarely eat dessert at East Asian restaurants, and on my visit, I was too full to order anything. The mEAT Baron, who does not live in San Francisco, is well known to Burma Superstar’s staff for his reputation for consuming the double portions of mint chicken – extra spicy, extra garlic, and no rice. They offered him complimentary coconut ice cream, and when he refused, the other two of us could not refuse a taste. It was unexpectedly thick and creamy, yet light with chunks of fresh coconut meat. I couldn’t stop after one bite. It was that good.

Virtually anything you could try at Burma Superstar is a sure bet. If you’re confused on what to order, just ask the table next to you what they’re having or what they recommend. Everyone is friendly – both the wait staff and customers – and are eager to help. Take a short excursion outside of touristy Union Square to discover the hospitality and brightest food traditions of Burma at Burma Superstar!