Tea leaf salad, or laphet thoke, will forever be the emblem of Burmese food inside the U.S.: its hamburger and its filet mignon, glorified and prosaic all at once. As one of very few places in the world where tea leaves are eaten rather than only dried, pulverized, and drunk, Myanmar is special. And something about the salty, citrusy, earthy dish, with its wide variety of textures and hopefully plenty of garlic, makes it something worth paying attention to for the subtle shades of difference from restaurant to restaurant.
It’s likely why Burma Superstar tosses its tea leaf salad tableside, for that extra bit of theater. Unfortunately, Burma Superstar has had credible accusations of substantial wage theft levied against its management, so I haven’t been there in awhile. (As with chefs who sexually abuse their employees, there’s no reason to patronize such a place.) So instead, I went to a shopping center off Hickey Boulevard in Pacifica.
I heard about Ledu from a friend who heard about it from a Burmese Uber driver, which sounds like the beginning to a painfully insipid Thomas L. Friedman column about foreign relations, but sometimes cliches are cliches for a reason. It’s essentially two restaurants in one: an $11.95 all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet and an a la carte Burmese menu of two dozen or so dishes, listed without any description. (Almost everything ranges from $8 to $11.) This slight schizophrenia has an unfortunate byproduct: Ledu’s Yelp rating is a measly two stars, almost all of it seemingly attributable to people who ate the buffet and reported their strident dissatisfaction. Apparently, it’s cold, the dishes sit there all day without replenishment, and it won’t apologize for voting for Jill Stein in a swing state.
But the a la carte menu is full of strong dishes that are clearly made with care, particularly the tea leaf salad, which was more properly bitter than flatly astringent, as mediocre salads sometimes are. While there’s a hefty handful of peanuts on it, it’s really a cornucopia that almost approaches a Southeast Asian trail mix, sparked by plenty of pan-fried garlic. You’re going to want to wring every drop from those lime wedges, which feel like the electrical current in the primordial sea that jump-started life itself. There were only two problems: the actual tea-leaf component was smallish, and the tomatoes were the pale hue of a watermelon Italian ice. Few things are more frustrating than a sad tomato! Other than that, it’s a must.
Shan noodles, another Burmese delicacy, came with chicken, some pickled vegetables, and plenty of peanuts. At the risk of damning them with faint praise, they weren’t greasy at all, a perfectly suitable meal in and of itself. Potato-filled samosas — a generous eight to an order — were also smartly fried, and they came alive with a spoonful of chili oil. A bowl of fried rice loves egg, and Ledu’s fries two of them over easy, letting you stir the yolks so that they cook fully by mixing into the rice — with more peanuts, naturally. As far as umami simplicity goes, this is top-notch.
The pork ear salad, an offal delight that’s certainly not designed with a native-born American palate foremost in mind, was about as subtly executed as any such dish I’ve tried. “Cartilaginous” is hardly the most appetizing of adjectives, but for anyone who’s cultivated a taste for such pig ears, it was sauced with a confidence that the strips of meat were there to speak for themselves, only a little spicy, and chewy in the most satisfying way.
But the best item was probably the moh hinga, arguably the real national dish of Myanmar. A catfish-and-vermicelli soup with cilantro, it was as nourishing as a broth and as satiating as a stew, capturing that earthy bass note that differentiates Burmese cuisine from the less-rustic standards of American-friendly Thai food.
There are so few mini-malls in San Francisco that you almost have to remind yourself that this is how vast swaths of America eat, but the rarity works to Ledu’s advantage. Apart from some cheery tablecloths, the interior is nothing to shake a stick at, and at night, the buffet appears most uninviting. Let it uninvite you, and let excellent Burmese be your reward instead.
Ledu Restaurant, 749 Hickey Blvd., Pacifica, 650-355-8218, no website.