The lauded underground Burmese spot Yun Cafe — famously wedged among a row of shoebox-sized businesses inside the Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street subway station in Jackson Heights — is expanding aboveground. The family behind the operation — married couple Thidar Kyaw and Tin Ko Naing handle the cooking, while their daughter Yun Naing is the business manager — is opening a rare Manhattan Burmese establishment called Little Myanmar, located at 150 E. Second Street, near Avenue A, in the East Village. It debuts on April 24 with a full-blown kitchen that expands on Yun Cafe’s existing repertoire with tangy noodle soups, steaming hot curries, mala skewers, and baked cassava cakes.
“Because we’re in a basement [in Jackson Heights], it’s not really the perfect place to cook,” says Yun. “Now, we have a real kitchen so we can show more of our delicious Burmese food. It’s something that we’ve been wanting to do.”
Kyaw — Yun’s mother and head chef of Little Myanmar — is bringing all of Yun Cafe’s beloved salads and soups over to the East Village, including the tea leaf salad and mohinga, a tangy soup made from pulverized catfish, lemongrass, and ginger. She’s also adding a bevy of hot food items, including around 15 new curry dishes. Kyaw is particularly fired up about a masala crab curry, which has reaped praises for generations in her family, that will be on the menu this spring and summer. Pieces of crab — claws and all — are steeped in a fragrant concoction of ginger, garlic, tomato, curry leaves, fish paste, and chile peppers.
The family is also debuting skewers of mala-spiced chicken, beef, vegetables, and seafood in the evenings. “They fit the nightlife kind of vibe here,” Yun says. “You can eat them while you’re walking down the street.”
Desserts and sweet beverages fill out the menu, with springy cassava and banana cakes baked on the premises, shwe yin aye (a cold treat of pandan jelly noodles, sticky rice, and condensed milk), and papaya milkshakes.
Kyaw can churn out 15 different kinds of curry, plus skewers and sweet cakes, because of a number of factors in the new, ground-level space: larger square footage (350 square feet versus 250); an oven for baked dishes; and an exhaust hood that removes airborne grease, smoke, and steam from the kitchen. In Yun Cafe’s poorly ventilated subterranean space, neighboring business owners complain when father and head chef Tin Ko Naing cooks throughout the day. (Tin Ko now cooks all of the soups and salad components in the morning to reheat throughout the day.) Little Myanmar also fits up to eight tables for dining in, while Yun Cafe is mainly grab-and-go.
The East Village restaurant also marks a culmination of the family banding together to realize Kyaw’s dream of resuscitating her own business. In March 2021, Kyaw’s convenience store burned down in a blaze that destroyed six businesses in Jackson Heights. She doubled down on her real estate agent job while her husband forged ahead with plans for their Jackson Heights restaurant. Yun herself is a full-time economics student at Baruch College, applying her textbook lessons in real time as she runs her family’s venture. In homage, the family christened the new restaurant with the name of Kyaw’s old store.
A higher-stakes mission further galvanizes the family. The Manhattan expansion allows the family to cover more ground in their efforts to demystify food that comes “from a country that a lot of people don’t even know about,” Yun says. Ultimately, they want to catapult mohinga, often referred to as the national dish of Myanmar, into the mainstream in New York, like other Southeast Asian dishes such as pho. When Cafe Mingala on the Upper East Side closed in 2016, it left the borough bereft of Burmese restaurants. Elsewhere in the city, Brooklyn-based Rangoon and Queens-based Burmese Bites have been raising awareness of Burmese fare in NYC in recent years. (Rangoon’s celebrated chef and owner, Myo Moe, is in the thick of building out another restaurant in Chelsea.)
For Yun and her family, accomplishing the mission of raising visibility for Burmese food has literally been a move upwards. “The subway was the first step, and now we are at the ground level,” says Yun. “It’s great. The air is better.”
Little Myanmar is open every day from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Yun Cafe, located in the Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street subway station (closest to the stairwell that leads up to Diversity Plaza) will remain open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. six days a week. Closed Tuesdays.