It may surprise you to hear, but New York City — with its thriving dining scene, comprising 140 or more ethnicities from all over the globe — is missing some. Our deficiencies include Kenyan and Costa Rican, as well as Libyan. But one of our most signal failures lies in food of the former Burma, now known by its 13th-century name of Myanmar. Anthony Bourdain extolled it in the premiere episode of Parts Unknown, but all the city had until recently was a single Upper East Side old-timer, Café Mingala — though 15 years ago we had many more.
The cuisine includes wonderful salads featuring fermented tea leaves, pig skin, and pickled ginger; pork curries —some sweet, some sour; squash, eggplant, and lentil fritters; plenty of eel and goat in preparations reminiscent of Indian curries and Chinese stir-fries; and noodles in all sorts of pleasing permutations. Which brings us to a Burmese newcomer: Rangoon NoodleLab, named after the British colonial pronunciation of what was once the capital of the country, more properly called Yangon. The city of five million is situated in a region of the same name in southwest Myanmar, on a river inlet that empties into the Andaman Sea.
Rangoon NoodleLab started out late last year as a Friday night pop-up at 1080 Brew, a coffee bar on Wyckoff Avenue in Ridgewood, just over the Queens border from Bushwick. But late in April it moved to the Bodega, a wine and beer bar located a block north of the Jefferson stop on the L. Every Wednesday evening a menu of four noodle dishes ($9 to $12 each) and a dessert ($4) are presented, varying from week to week. The pop-up impresario, chef, and chief cook is Myo Moe, who was born in Myanmar. She uses a broad range of wheat, rice, and mung-bean noodles to create her sometimes surprising bill of fare.
These noodles can take the form of stir-fries, soups, or cold summer salads, with some dishes toggling between those modalities. Individual recipes vary from week to week, so that one Wednesday if you order beef shan noodle —attributed to a state in eastern Myanmar bordering China— it may be a heap of slippery and pungently oily rice linguine shot with beef nuggets, shredded omelet, crunchy peanuts, and cilantro, tasting powerfully of fish sauce and secondarily of tomato. Another week, the sauce might be thicker and more tomatoey, with a heap of ground beef almost like an Italian ragu. Either way, the noodles are memorably tasty.
Another classic is chicken coconut noodle, which may remind you of khao soi, the coconut noodle soup usually attributed to Chiang Mai, a city that lies just south of Myanmar in Thailand. At Rangoon NoodleLab, it’s a steaming heap of curried and stomach-comforting wheat noodles, enlivened by bits of pickled vegetable and crunchy rice cracker tidbits. But a couple of Wednesdays later, it had turned into a full-blown soup with plenty of broth heavily laced with thick coconut milk. The changes Moe weekly wreaks on her noodles provide a reason to visit her temporary establishment again and again.
There’s always a vegan selection, and it can be the week’s best. One time it was a bowl of translucent mung-bean threads laved in hoisin that provided a spicy kick in the pants. On another occasion it was a broad wheat noodle in a dryish curry with carrots, planked with something called chickpea tofu, warm and creamy like egg custard. The bowl came with fresh mint leaves quivering on top and a wedge of lime that moistened the noodles and sent the flavor into orbit. It was the spiciest thing going on in Bushwick that evening.
Wearing a blue apron with a shock of blond hair poking out from under her head scarf, the bespectacled Myo Moe works, not in a kitchen, but at a corner mise en place behind the bar at Bodega. Sometimes an assistant helps as she pivots between a tray of plastic-wrapped, parcooked noodles (usually three varieties per evening), and small bowls of spices, herbs, and chopped and pickled veggies. Most of her selections are prepared on a pair of hot plates in Teflon skillets, meaning if a table of four orders different things, the dishes must appear in waves. Sometimes there’s a wait.
"Many of my recipes come from my mother," she told me one evening as I sat with some friends at the bar. "But I like to change them a little every time I make them." Indeed, every dish I’ve tried there has been interesting at the very least. And I found myself counting the days till the next Wednesday, when I’d see what new tweaks had been accomplished on what had become old favorites. In this way fandom is born.
Robert Sietsema is Eater New York's senior critic. See his full archives here.
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
Cost: Dinner for two, including two noodle dishes, two glasses of beer, and a shared dessert, with tax but not tip, $40
Sample dishes: Garlic pork and shrimp noodle, Mandalay chicken noodle salad, spicy stir fry vegan curry noodle, coconut tapioca with fresh mango.
What to drink: Beer, wine, seltzer with lime.
Bonus tip: A happy hour form 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. offers a cheap draft beer selection, plus a bottle of very adequate rose for $20 (usual price: $30).