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As he moves to N.Y., our reviewer reveals an S.F. treasure

Wednesday, Dec 11 2002
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About a month ago, I walked to Brooklyn, which didn't take long (I was staying at a friend's place in Manhattan). Still, my dogs were barking by the time I returned, so I strolled up to a friend's rooftop deck, lit a cigarette, and just ... took it all in. It was a temperate day, at least for November in New York. The horizon was etched with buildings as far as the eye could see. East Coast hip hop boomed from the apartments across the street, a staccato underscored by the deep, unrelenting roar of a city I'd been 99.9 percent sure I was moving to until that moment. Today I'm 107 percent sure -- 112 percent if you figure in the pastrami at Katz's Deli, the pizza at Rosario's, and the Dominican-style roast chicken at Cibao -- all conveniently located within blocks of my new sublet on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Though I don't want to say too much in parting (farewells always make me teary), I'll miss my friends, my apartment, good dope, my weekly football game, and the kindly fishmongers at the Mission Meat Market. As for the food scene in San Francisco, well, I don't know anyone who'd claim it's as exciting as it was a few years ago, when cutting-edge places were opening as fast as I and other critics could review them. Mourn the lull if you must; better yet, take the opportunity to explore the Bay Area's greatest culinary treasures -- that special breed of eatery I've come to think of as the Top-Tier Ethnic Restaurant.

Such establishments tend to fall into a certain mold. They've usually been around a while, are often crowded, and deliver food so superb you may end up planning a return visit about three bites into your first meal. The place will, in all likelihood, have a certain flavor, which can manifest itself in the odd serenity of the Helmand, the skankiness of Tu Lan, or the bustling, after-hours scenes at Osha Thai and Yuet Lee. They're the nosh spots I dream about late at night, tossing in my wretched bed as I pine for the Persian stews at Maykadeh, the pozole at La Quinta, and the unbeatable sashimi combination at Kabuto. Tried the shabu-shabu at Maki? Dim sum at Koi Palace? Do so and you'll realize that, recession or not, some restaurants in these parts are so excellent that God himself couldn't kill them.

To the preceding list -- which could be much longer -- I would add Burma Superstar, a cozy Clement Street site that features the Thai-Indian-Chinese fusion developed by the good people of Myanmar (known as Burma until 1989). Though "Myanmar Superstar" has a nice ring to it, I wouldn't change a thing about Burma Superstar. The service is friendly, the line doesn't get too long on weekdays, and the décor is layered with knickknacks -- Buddhas, masks, branches intertwined with Christmas lights -- collected over the past 10 years. Before I hit the road, I may round up a large enough party to take over the lone banquet table, but during my final SF Weekly visit I brought my friends Lauren, who's been on a few of these trips yet somehow never got her name into a review, and Elsbeth, who's been on many, many outings. (For those who've asked, yes, she's that Elsbeth -- curly hair, shots of Fernet. What other Elsbeth could there be?)

Perhaps the best way to describe Burma Superstar is to say that you won't want to tell anyone about the place unless you've decided to move 3,000 miles away. Beverages run from tea and beer to a nine-bottle wine list ($15-22, all selections available by the glass). Thus far, I've found only one poor choice on the 67-item menu: an appetizer of pork and pickled radish served in lettuce cups with a thick, cloying dipping sauce. Beyond that, the kitchen knocks out exquisite, nuanced dishes that range from Indian-style curries to East Asian noodles and stir-fries. Soup is an absolute must. The samusa version pairs lightly browned chickpea dumplings with a rich, curried stock and ribbons of crunchy cabbage. Moo hing nga ("Burma's famous fish chowder") is a hearty porridge laced with rice vermicelli and onions, topped with crackling, deep-fried mung bean cakes, and served with wedges of lemon that spark this already ambrosial stew to an epic level of delectability.

Alternatively, you could start with the rainbow salad -- a whopping 22 ingredients arranged like dabs of paint on an artist's palette, then tossed into a neat heap by your server at the table. Wheat noodles, glass noodles, rice noodles, and even fried noodles meet (among other things) green papaya, fried garlic, tofu, shredded carrot, and a subtle tamarind dressing to produce a striking mosaic of textures and flavors. The restaurant always offers a few specials -- perhaps you'd like an appetizer of falling-off-the-bone spare ribs braised with a whiff of five spice, or a seasonal treat such as pea shoots stir-fried simply and perfectly with wine and garlic. Rice cookery is elevated to an art at Burma Superstar. Have a side of the barely sweet coconut rice, the Indian-style tan poi spiced with cinnamon and cloves, or the light Burmese fried rice with mung beans and onions.

See jyet kaukswer (try saying that five times fast) translates as slender, house-made wheat noodles tossed with roast duck and scallions, accompanied by a sweetened chili sauce. I like it, but prefer the bun tay kaukswer, a thicker, heartier wheat noodle slathered with minced chicken, split peas, and a coconut curry sauce with an initial mildness that morphs into a smoldering burn. Tender squid comes sautéed with a bright, flavorful mélange of chilies, garlic, lemongrass, and basil. String beans stir-fried with ginger and chili sauce are as fine as such a straightforward dish can be. The menu contains many other intriguing choices (I especially want to try the mango mutton with basil), and I would have sampled more of them, but during each of our three visits Elsbeth insisted on ordering the pork curry. I don't blame her: Cubes of pork come braised to spoon tenderness, then served with potatoes in a brilliant red sauce shot through with a galaxy of spices. Pair this dish with coconut rice and it adds up to one of the finest combinations I've had during a decade of dining out in this world-class food town.

Desserts provide a lovely finish. Choices include a humble duo of coconut and mango ice creams and more elaborate sweets like golden, crispy fritters filled with coconut custard, served with melon balls, mint, and a dusting of powdered sugar. After that, the only thing left to buy is your very own Burma Superstar T-shirt (try that at Aqua or Boulevard). I got one, so if you see a guy wearing one in New York, that'll be me -- or some other dude who left a piece of his heart at this undeniable gem of a San Francisco restaurant.

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Greg Hugunin

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