When I first stumbled into Yamo, it was dark, I was lost in a new city, and I had no money. The place smelled good and it looked cheap. Forty-five minutes later, I walked out of one my favorite restaurants in the world.
No longer a well-kept secret, Yamo is more of a crack in an alley than a hole in the wall. Located on 18th Street in the Mission, it’s a Burmese food counter with prices that are just as unarguable as the food (apps for $4.75, salads and entrees $6.50).
Sitting along the 12-person counter is like eating in the hull of an iron ship. There’s steam everywhere, and the chefs are three mischievous ladies who may love you or hate you. They may find great amusement in pretending not to understand certain substitutions or requests and may cackle after a guest simply gives up. Yamo has gained street cred over the years, so it can be hard to grab a seat, but the atmosphere remains true to its original form.
If you do find yourself lucky enough to sit down for a quick bite — early lunch or early evening during the week are your best bets — start out with the spring rolls. Made to order, they’re prepared with poached shrimp, vermicelli noodles, fresh basil, and lettuce that’s all rolled into sticky rice wraps. Cold and refreshing, they’re also the perfect preparation for all the flavors to come. Next, order the tea leaf salad. Awesomely crunchy and spicier than anticipated, Yamo’s tea leaf salad is a slaw of fermented tea leaves, onions, fried beans, nuts, and sesame seeds, dressed with fish sauce, chile oil, and garlic. It’s one of the tastiest dishes in San Francisco.
Yamo’s entrees span traditional tofu dishes, curries, and noodles. I’ve tried many, but I can rarely resist the house cold noodles, served with piping hot chicken, crispy cabbage, cucumber, and peanuts. The contrast of the hot chicken and the chilled noodles go together like ham and cheese. Throw in some fresh vegetables, and it’s the perfect ménage à trois. After eating this dish, I almost always prefer my noodles cold for about a week.
Yamo is a spectacle because it proves that it’s possible to eat in an alcove that feels like it’s dripping from the ceiling and leave feeling like a superhero who just ate an elegant, well-balanced, three-course meal. Long live Yamo!
Yamo, 3406 18th St., 415-553-8911, no website.