The story is already familiar: how Burmese immigrants and married couple Thidar Kyaw and Tin Ko Naing with their daughter Yun Naing bravely cloned their tiny Jackson Heights restaurant Yun Cafe as Little Myanmar in the East Village. It opened in late April in a space scarcely larger than the original — which is located below street level in the bowels of the 74th Street-Roosevelt Avenue subway station — on East Second Street just off Avenue A. On an early visit, many of the dishes had run out, as long lines formed and a frantic atmosphere prevailed. It wasn’t surprising, given how few restaurants in town offer Burmese food. But by last week, the curious crowds had subsided, and most of the menu’s voluminous catalog was available. And I’m happy to report: the food was beyond fantastic.
The English names sometimes offer no clue as to what the dishes are really like. While chicken paratha ($8) might suggest something like a Malaysian roti canai — a flatbread with a small serving of curry — what arrives is a hearty soup sloshing in a large bowl. Shredded chicken lurks in the depths, while rafts of fresh herbs and a tangle of crunchy shredded cabbage float on top. Swatches of flatbread populate every stratum, having turned into noodles that provide, in their soft stickiness, a chewy delight. After one bite, you may never go back to normal noodles again.
While it might be expected that a 100-item menu would have lots of redundancy with such a small kitchen, this restaurant has an astonishing diversity of dishes. Spicy shrimp curry ($15) is a complete contrast to the paratha soup, with crustaceans big enough to be called prawns, added at the last moment so they’re not rubbery, swimming in a thick red sauce featuring the bright taste of tomatoes and chiles. Tofu salad reads more like a stir fry than a salad, a pile of yellowish timbers punctuated with fried onions in a fascinating dressing of tamarind and bean powder. Did I mention that the tofu is homemade? It’s more like thick custard than any other bean curd you might have seen lately.
For a diner unacquainted with the excellence of Burmese cooking, coming here will feel like traveling to Southeast Asia. Over half the dishes fall into the broad category of composed salads, which are divided into two sections: Light Athokes and Main Athokes. The most famous of the former is the tea leaf salad. The leaves are fermented, for a bitter and astringent tingle on the tongue, and they provide a depth of flavor way out of proportion to their tiny quantity. The recipe also contains dried shrimp, peanuts, and red ripe tomatoes, and was so fiery with unseen chiles that it gave me the hiccups — though I went right on happily eating.
An example of the main athokes is Shan noodle ($15), named after people that inhabit China’s Yunnan province, parts of Thailand, and northern Myanmar — overall, they make up about 10 percent of the Burmese population. Their namesake noodles are rice sticks similar to pho noodles or mifen, flavored with garlic, chiles, and pickles with crunchy add-ons like peanuts, fried soybeans, and toasted yellow split peas.
Despite the prevalence of crunch in Burmese cuisine, one dish that doesn’t have any at all is a tripe soup ($10) that comes in a big metal bowl. Given the main ingredient — the reticulum or second stomach of a cow — it comes as a surprise that the soup stock is so light, and the offal itself has been so relentlessly cleaned and stewed, that the fragments are as soft as cotton balls. And they have virtually none of the intentional pungency one might savor in, say, a Mexican menudo. Each bite is likely to be accompanied by the sound of the spoon striking the sides of the metal bowl, resounding like a gong in the restaurant’s Temple of Delicious Myanmar Food.
If you can possibly do so, go to Little Myanmar on a weekday afternoon when the sun streams in the front window and the place is often half empty. You’ll feel like you’re in someone’s far away family kitchen as the smells of garlic, fish sauce, lime, and ginger waft past you, and the sounds of chopping and sizzling pervade.
For a week, I went nearly every day, during which time my favorite dish was goat curry ($18). It features lots of meat and few bones in a dark gravy using mellow, fragrant, and slightly gritty Burmese curry powder, along with a large serving of rice and a bowl of lentil soup. In a city filled with many iterations of goat curry from over a dozen different nationalities, this is the best I’ve tasted lately, and proved just the thing to stop my tea salad-induced hiccuping.