Most dishes served by the Wanna-E Mandalay food truck appear completely unfinished, a little like the infamous avant-garde “cake batter” dessert by Kaley Laird at Union Square’s Aveline. Everything is compartmentalized and not brought together yet. Salads and noodles come in take-out containers exactly like one would find at the nearest Whole Foods salad bar. The dishes themselves appear the same way as what might be a salad bar concoction: ingredient A to the left, lots of ingredient B to the right, some ingredient C and ingredient D hidden underneath everything. There's no teamwork. Patience required.
[jump] Then diners' relentless inner six-year-old in diners takes over. The fun ensues as you toss together every component of Wanna-E’s breathtaking tea leaf salad ($10). (At many Bay Area Burmese restaurants, servers handle this.) With the tea leaf salad’s extravagant rival, the less-rewarding, 22-ingredient “rainbow salad,” this show becomes a mix of a Vegas act and a N’Awlins flame-less flambé. With a food truck, the diner gets the honor of the salad toss…and more importantly, the opportunity to enjoy a great salad.
Wanna-E’s truck boasts a sign warning those with banal palates that this might not be the thing for you. It’s not viciously spicy or funky, but this tea leaf salad is bright, vibrant, and seductive. Toasted sesame seeds partner with pickled, whole tea leaf shoots imported directly from Burma for a one-two umami punch. Garlic-fried beans unleash their power, simultaneously blasting their presence in flavor and in nut-evoking crunch. Shrimp powder adds another layer of texture, and a light fishy acidity (this being San Francisco you can order the salad a vegetarian alternative). A container of a squid sauce-based dressing ties everything together with its seafaring notes that are far more pleasant and less pungent than regular fish sauce. The cabbage is moist, a bright, snow-white hue, and looks happy and healthy. Alice Waters would approve.
You get the idea somebody in Burma stumbled upon this dish centuries ago randomly but had to have some idea in mind because it’s in such harmony. Subtlety is out for a tea leaf salad. Moderation and balance are in for a tea leaf salad.
Being away from the sea, pork plays a key part in Mandalay dishes. “Not So Stinky Garlic Noodles” ($10) is the perfect description for the Mandalay noodles on the crisp side of al dente with shreds of pork. Garlic oil and garlic chips provide garlic’s trademark earthy undertones, and a red chili flake condiment — similar in burn to Sriracha — swoops in. The noodles have nothing in common, ingredient-wise, with the tea leaf salad, but they share the same multi-facet flavor strategy. There is a lot going on here. None of it stinks. And for a Brooklyn edge, a container of pickled vegetables comes with the dish.
Not surprisingly, the winning tea leaf salad and garlic noodles are Mandalay's two most ordered dishes. We're a smart city.
This is not San Francisco’s debut Burmese food truck, but none of the others have quite made a splash on the street food scene like Wanna-E, the result of four friends who came to San Francisco for education opportunities. It routinely hangs out at some of the normal food truck stops: street corners in SoMa and SoMa StrEat Food. I found them at G Food Lounge on Second Street under the Bay Bridge on-ramp one Thursday lunch hour.
Five starters and five mains make up the savory menu, along with a trio of appetizers, including a sticky rice coconut “snow drink” with tapioca pearls swapped for basil seeds. Fried pork won tons and square tofu fries, made from scratch, come ready to dip into a tamarind sauce so alluring it should be bottled are the pivotal appetizers. For another main aside from the garlic pork noodles and tea leaf salad, keep an eye on the vegetarian rice noodles with curry sauce shiitakes with a bean soup borrowed from across the border in China’s tropical Yunnan province.
Oh, and why is it the Wanna-E truck? It sounds like a Pixar film and is totally unrelated. The four founders came up with a mission statement about making food the public will want to eat — and with a little slang involved, put it together. You people better want to eat the tea leaf salad frequently.
Follow the truck @WannaEsf