On a blustery January afternoon at Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst, as shoppers hustled through the food court past McDonald’s, Panda Express, and Sbarro, Myo Lin Thway repeatedly flung a palm-sized mound of dough against his steel prep counter. Within seconds, it spread into a sticky sheet that was as big and as round as a pizza pie. Contending with gravity, Thway turned to his stovetop and draped the nearly translucent wheel of dough on a hot slick of oil. He spooned a reddish-brown mass of seasoned, minced chicken at the center, spread it flat, and folded the dough over the filling one corner at a time, frying and wrapping each side to form a crispy, rectangular packet.
A customer walked up to Thway’s stall and scrutinized the menu. “What kind of cuisine is that?” he asked.
Thway stood behind the prep counter at the right end of his stall, wearing a fitted blue snapback hat scrawled with “Burmese Bites” in bright orange letters. “It’s Burmese,” he said.
“No, no,” the customer said. “I mean, what kind of food is that, like it’s Indian or Chinese?”
Thway explained that it’s food from a country now called Myanmar. “Thanks, never heard of that country,” the customer said, then walked off in search of a different lunch.
“That’s the kind of conversation I have about half a dozen times a day,” Thway told me. Sometimes customers walk away, but more often, they’ll decide to place an order and Thway may serve them their first bite of palata, a crispy Burmese flatbread that he has been persistently making in New York for the past 27 years. The cherished snack is ubiquitous in Myanmar, but here, Thway has memorized a spiel — comparing palata to roti — in order to convince customers to buy.
Thway opened Burmese Bites in the lower level of the JCPenney wing at Queens Center Mall five months ago, believing that the time was right to take Burmese food mainstream. Through the history of immigration in this country, entrepreneurs have turned a beloved dish from their community into the basis of an empire: Lombardi’s pizza in 1905, Nathan’s Famous hot dogs in 1916, the Halal Guys’ chicken over rice in 1990, Xi’an Famous Foods’ cumin-spiced lamb noodles in 2005. The Burmese population in America is small, just 189,000, with most concentrated in San Francisco, lending to its relative obscurity in much of America. More recently, after decades of there being just a single Burmese restaurant in the entire city, there’s been a small boom in Burmese restaurants in the New York area — Asian Bowl opened in Forest Hills in 2019, followed by Rangoon in Crown Heights, Yun Cafe in Jackson Heights, and Amayar Kitchen in Maywood, New Jersey, in 2020 — exposing more people than ever to the country’s complex salads, zesty noodle soups, and rich curries.
Entrepreneurs’ attempts to mainstream an immigrant food in NYC entail not only catering to the palates of those who’ve come before them, but also adapting recipes with ingredients that are available in the city. That undertaking comes with compromises — adjusting spice levels, switching out a key herb — as well as navigating language barriers and coming up with endlessly creative ways to continuously answer the question: “What is that?” It takes conviction to weather the challenges.
“My mission statement is that Burmese food shall be known throughout the world,” says Thway. “And that I at Burmese Bites have long lines of Burmese and non-Burmese people. That’s my number one [goal].”
Thway learned how to make palata nearly 30 years ago, as a teenager in Hinthada, a small city in southern Myanmar, after his father, a national distributor of sar ka law kway, (crunchy, fried squiggles of chana dal flour) decided he wanted to be able to eat his favorite snack at any time without leaving home. Palata is an all-day food often sold at street carts and tea houses, where people gather to chat over steaming cups of strong, sweetened black tea. It’s too difficult for the everyday home cook to make palata in their kitchen, according to Thway, so his father hired an expert to train the family in the art of stretching dough. Thway had a knack for working with his hands, and took it up easily.
In 1994, Thway left for New York to study mechanical engineering at City College. He found his community shortly after arriving, at the Myanmar Baptist Church in Briarwood, Queens. Many of the church members had left their native country to escape the military dictatorship that was also responsible for changing the country’s English name, Burma, to Myanmar. Thway took up stretching palata again to sell at the fundraisers. At the time, the delicate, labor-intensive snack was nearly impossible to find in New York. The sole Burmese restaurant in the city, Cafe Mingala on the Upper East Side, was pricey and largely out of reach for the community. Each year, Thway would make 400 pea palatas, and each year, homesick Burmese snapped up the light, crispy flatbreads with a side of white pea paste that reminded them of the street carts and teahouses back in their native home.
After completing his mechanical engineering degree, Thway secured a job as a production manager in Manhattan’s Diamond District. But as his palata sold out year after year at the church, he started to dream of selling it on a larger scale. “My father was a food business person,” says Thway. “I have that in me, too, but I didn’t know where to start.”
In the summer of 2014, Thway’s friend set up a Thai food stand at a street fair in Manhattan, and asked Thway to visit. He strolled among the fair’s vendors, and took note of three popular gyro stands and the constant lines for his friend’s pad thai — as well as a complete lack of Burmese food. “Why don’t I bring my palata here?” Thway thought.
Maybe the flaky, layered snack — crispy in some parts, chewy in others — would cross cultural lines and differing palates. Besides, it was a sure-fire hit every year at the church fundraisers. Within the next two months, Thway was setting up a palata stand next to his friend’s Thai stall at the street fair.
To catch the attention of non-Burmese customers, he created theater out of palata production. He pounded a handful of dough over and over on his counter until it turned into a diaphanous sheet dripping from his hands. He’d then splay it onto his griddle, frying the dough in hot vegetable oil. For the finale, he’d rock the long, curved blade of his mezzaluna back and forth to cut into the crisp snack. His sales pitch to curious spectators went something like this: “It’s palata. Something similar to roti.” The accompanying split pea paste was “similar to hummus,” he’d explain, and it was “topped with caramelized onion,” a well-known fixing for everything from hamburgers to salads. “It’s savory,” he said. “Try it.”
The tasks of translation and adaptation are familiar to immigrant restaurant owners selling food to people outside of their community. Take the shao thee thoke, a punchy, flavorful salad that’s a favorite among Burmese people. Too sour, too spicy, too salty to eat on its own, it’s typically a side dish next to rice. “Burmese people love it because it makes any meal better,” says Yun Naing, a full-time Baruch College student and the manager-server-host who fills in all the blanks in the daily operation of her parents’ shop, the lauded Burmese restaurant Yun Cafe. “If we have shao thee thoke, it’s like, ‘Ok, nothing else really matters.’”
Inside the Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street subway station in Jackson Heights, Yun Cafe’s head chef and owner Tin Ko Naing cuts chunks of lemon — the best substitute he could find for the Burmese citrus shao thee fruit, which isn’t available in NYC — and mixes them with fermented fish paste, dried shrimp powder, cabbage, and both fresh and fried onions. Shao thee thoke doesn’t require a sales pitch for his Burmese customers — Jackson Heights and its neighboring Woodside and Elmhurst house some of the densest concentrations of Burmese American immigrants in New York — but to introduce this so-called lemon salad to non-Burmese people, Yun offers it as part of a combination with rice and a mundane-sounding “chicken noodle soup with mushroom.” She says the trick works: A customer recently ordered the combo, and couldn’t believe they had passed over the salad before.
Yun points to the third item listed on the menu under the “Main Burmese Salads” category. It’s the nan gyi thoke, and its orders haven’t met her expectations. “I think it’s the way I wrote it in the menu,” she says over the rumble of the E train. “Like, ‘thick rice noodle salad.’ Like, ‘Thiiick. Rice.’” She deepens her voice and enunciates each word to exaggerate the salad’s stocky rice noodles. “Thick. Rice. Yeah, maybe I should change that.”
The literal English translation of the dish’s Burmese name — thick rice noodle salad — doesn’t carry the salad’s full cultural cache: an amalgamation of thick rice noodles that can stand up to the chunks of chicken, fish cakes, and a deeply flavored, reddish oil derived from the chicken curry, fish sauce, cilantro, chiles, and limes. She decides against the hassle and cost of a round of reprints, and leaves the menu as it is.
In Manhattan, Thway had found himself throwing all manners of sales tactics — translation, entertainment, even free samples — at Midtown pedestrians in an attempt to convince passersby to try what had always been a sold-out dish for the Myanmar Baptist Church crowd. But he was selling just 40 palatas per day, a fraction of what he used to sell at the annual church fundraisers. He slowly converted the uninformed into customers who didn’t have any qualms about the vegetarian snack. The following week, he lost the few he’d won over as the street fair switched to a new neighborhood, and he’d have to start all over again. “A lot of people loved my pea palata at the church so I thought, okay, it would be loved by the street fair guests, as well,” Thway says. “But I thought wrong.”
Thway began to look for a more stable home for Burmese Bites. In early 2015, just a few months after the summer street fairs had wound down, John Wang started breaking ground on the Queens Night Market in Flushing. He needed to recruit vendors who could fulfill his vision: a kaleidoscope of foods that represented the most ethnically diverse county in the continental U.S. — and a throng of customers who enjoyed trying foods unfamiliar to them.
The Queens Night Market, which eventually averaged 10,000 visitors per night, gave Thway a huge platform to promote Burmese food. But he’d learned an important lesson from his street fair days: non-Burmese Americans like their meat. “Pea palata is very good, but it’s good for only Burmese people,” he says. “I have to change my strategy. So, okay, what is the meat going to be?”
He decided on chicken curry palata — another Myanmar favorite that’s served alongside a chicken curry for dipping — and keema palata, which was not only the least popular palata in Myanmar, according to Thway, but also the one he personally likes the least. In this version, seasoned minced chicken is folded into the flatbread and fried altogether for a crispy, meat-filled snack that’s cut into bite-sized pieces. Within a month, the keema palata shot ahead of the chicken curry version, drew hours-long lines, and became a perpetual media highlight. Thway attributes the unexpected sales to the compactness and convenience of the keema version. It looks “nicer, neater” on Instagram, he says, and “the chicken curry palata is a little messy,” particularly for night market guests who are eating while standing up.
Other immigrant chefs have also grappled with how to fit their food into differing flavor profiles. Is it too spicy? Too funky with fermentation? Too full of offal? For restaurateur and chef Myo Moe and her mother, mohinga — the national dish of Myanmar — had fulfilled a longing for home after they emigrated to Queens in 1993. It’s an invigorating noodle soup that starts with catfish, water, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, shallot, and other aromatics melding in a hefty pot. Moe scoops out the seasoned fish, smashes it into a paste of sauteed turmeric, paprika, and fish sauce, then stirs the fish back into the broth. To finish, she ladles it into a steaming bowl and tops the soup with a crackly onion or pea fritter. The mohinga packs a zingy punch.
“But is it too fishy?” Moe wondered about her non-Burmese customers as she designed the menu for her debut restaurant, Rangoon, a chic, white-walled work of art. Far from the Burmese community in Queens, she was catering to a multifaceted demographic on the gentrifying border of Crown Heights and Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. What was the right balance of preserving her culture and making food that non-Burmese New Yorkers would want to eat?
She chose to sell the mohinga. “I just closed my eyes, and decided, ‘This is the one thing we must have on the menu,’” Moe says.
It was a good decision: Restaurant critic Pete Wells extolled the “alluring” mohinga in the New York Times, and diners — who often pull up their bookmarked articles on Rangoon and scroll to a photo of mohinga — order it so much that it’s one of the three top sellers at the restaurant. “I am pretty surprised about [non-Burmese] people loving mohinga,” says Moe, laughing. “I am super, super, super happy about that.”
In his mission to spread Burmese food far beyond the contours of his community, Thway decided to focus on the dish that was easiest to scale in New York. By the next summer, he was selling 450 meat-filled keema palatas per day at the Queens Night Market. He was breaking personal sales records. But after five years, he was ready to seek new ground. In February 2019, Annie Ye of Asian bun-focused C Bao, another Queens Night Market fellow, approached Thway: Would he share a stall with them at the food court at Queens Center Mall? It seemed like a natural next step for Burmese Bites, so he dropped the lease application over to the management office.
It took nearly two years — and a short-lived stint trying to explain palata to tourists as a vendor at Rockefeller Center, plus a food truck in Long Island City that nabbed him a 2018 People’s Choice Vendy Award — but on November 13, 2021, Burmese Bites opened its new space at Queens Center Mall, right next to C Bao. A large sign spelling out “Burmese Bites” in italicized serif signals Thway’s presence among national chains like McDonald’s, KFC, Panda Express, and Carvel. “I’m with the big boys now,” Thway says.
Queens Center Mall, located in Elmhurst, sits squarely among the city’s Burmese American community, completing a full circle in Burmese Bites’ journey. Thway benefits from a spacious prep counter, a refrigerator, fryer, grill, oven, and a gas stove — none of which he has to pack up at the end of the day. After focusing on palata-making for decades, which has sustained his business so far, he’s now able to expand his menu to lesser-seen dishes like fish balachung, a spicy condiment, chicken dum pot that he likens to “Burmese-style biryani,” and mont let saung, a coconut milk-based drink dappled with jiggly green jelly that he calls “Burmese bubble tea.” Out of his shiny, new stall, Thway is cooking for his local Burmese community just as much as he’s introducing a taste of his native dishes to his non-Burmese customers.
Other Burmese chefs are also expanding: In April, Yun Cafe’s Yun Naing and her family opened a second Burmese restaurant, Little Myanmar, in the East Village, and Rangoon’s Myo Moe is in the middle of building out her first restaurant in Manhattan.
“This is what I’ve been dreaming for,” Thway says. “I’m gradually accomplishing my mission, day by day, one person after another.”
Caroline Shin is a Queens-raised food journalist and founder of the Cooking with Granny YouTube and workshop series spotlighting immigrant grandmothers. Follow her on Instagram @CookingWGranny.