South by Southeast 

A little-known cuisine is now the next big thing, thanks to Burma Superstar.

How do trendy restaurants become trendy? Word of mouth. Mouths eat, then speak. Then word spreads among those who've never eaten there at all. I hear it's great! That's when fame takes on a life of its own.

Which is not to call Burma Superstar the Britney Spears of East Bay restaurants. Not totally. But not totally not, because just as Britney has talent — and she actually does — Burma Superstar sells ravishingly lovely food comprising wholesome, often delightfully startling ingredients in whopping two-could-share-one-entrée portions, flaunting hypnotic addictive flavors and bold textures that are revolutionarily unlike anything that most of us have ever tried before. It's just a little difficult to eat there.

First, its trendiness means that you'll quite likely wait for a table. Okay, waiting is itself an appetizer. Those who have been there before are back because they want to be, and thus they want to wait. Meanwhile, dozens of other restaurants representing nearly every cuisine in the world line the surrounding blocks, most half-empty or worse, standing watchfully wistful like the uncool kids at school.

The first-timers waiting to eat at Burma Superstar have heard that it is fabulous. Maybe they know of the original — and wildly trendy — Burma Superstar in San Francisco. (There's also a location in Alameda.) For some, waiting is a pilgrimage, an act of faith. But once you're in, and it's your table they await, they become inadvertently oppressive.

Aiming to beat the crowd, we arrived just as the restaurant reopened at 5. We picked the table farthest from the family with the screaming child. She was not a baby but a butterscotch-haired toddler, shrieking not in pain but bliss: piercing relentless acid peals that would repeat for half an hour as her parents ate with what-the-hell-are-you-staring-at smirks. Okay, kids can be random. But. This restaurant's coolly dark design — black bar, black ceiling, black-and-concrete floor — is all hard surfaces. Sound, with no softness to absorb it, burgeons to a din: Dishes. Chairs. Voices, as everyone strains to be heard over everyone else and over the music pumping through the speakers: techno, not trancey but stuttery, like at those parties where you have to shout.

But. Tea-leaf salad, Burma Superstar's signature dish, is so stunning, so new to even savvy palates as to be its own one-plate enlightenment. (A grinning Buddha graces the restaurant's facade.) Arriving unmixed like piles of jewels, then tossed at our table by the sweetest server in the world, were peanuts, hot green pepper shards, fried chickpeas, fried garlic, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, tomato, lettuce, and a mossy mountain of fermented tea leaves — actually gathered in Burma — that then swathed the salty, snappy melange in sleek, almost-fishy pickliness.

Another version of nirvana is the vegetarian sumusa soup. Scattered with cabbage shredded superfine, as thick and curry-yellow as the accrued wisdom of eternity, the soup in its big bowl came stuffed with soft fried doughy pouches stuffed in turn with spicy vegetables. Treasures-within-a-treasure, this calls to mind Indian samosas and idli sambar, Thai tom ka soup, and Chinese won-ton soup. Because Burma borders on India, Thailand, and China, its cuisine combines all three.

And here begins our ignorance, and the thrill of learning through food. What do most of us know of Myanmar, eh? This restaurant provides forks and chopsticks on its napkins. Picking up the sticks might make you feel superior, but meals in Myanmar are typically eaten with the fingers, not with implements.

Our server told us the okra-egg curry would be mild. She said it sweetly, earnestly. To Burmese tastes, maybe. To Ted and Erica and Tuffy, it was medium. To me, the crimson sauce bathing those juicy okra bullets and eggs boiled extra-hard, then halved — stained the hue of the sauce, seductively — was hot. So was Ted's "fiery chicken," which brought tears to his eyes, but at least its name was a clue. Erica's shrimp kebat — tossed with tomatoes, onions, and fresh mint in a cinnabar sauce whose color is a recurring theme here — was hotter still: an honest, pure, insistent burn that didn't hurt, she said, as habanero sauces do but made her tongue pulsate. When you gulp curry soup to cool your mouth, you're not in Kansas anymore.

Another foil was tan poi rice, biryani-esque with its cardamom-cinnamon-raisin perfume. Another was dessert: coconut ice cream and fresh strawberries atop puddingy sweet black rice. In other words, ecstasy number three.

But we were all twitchy by then. Between the noise, the capsicum, and the encroaching crowd, I felt assailed. Far from any calm the Buddha's face on the facade implies, this was like a lab experiment gauging the effects of techno beats and screaming on digestion. Yet the place was packed with happy, eager eaters. So something has changed in social culture such that trendy restaurants serving tasty if somewhat spendy meals need no longer be languid or serene. Uh-oh: Do I sound like my dad?

It struck me that, eaten somewhere that isn't Burma Superstar, Burma Superstar's good food would be heavenly. Ordering takeout, I proved myself right. The tofu-garlic noodles resembled chow mein, but with yummy potato cubes! The Superstar vegetarian noodles, flat like fettucini and pad thai, sported crushed peanuts, tofu pillows, and enormous broccoli trees and yet another hot red sauce: this one fruity and sweet and thick with slivered onion. Paper-thin layers pressed together and fried so indulgently that you'd best eat it with a fork, platha is Burma's slightly sweeter answer to the Indian flatbread paratha. Its flavor evokes doughnuts. Texturewise it's leathery, but in a good way, bringing to mind something else. We sat here eating it at home while striving to remember what. Something a world away from Southeast Asia, rich and chewy and brazenly oily, loved but sampled only once or twice. Tuffy crowed: Navajo fry bread. Exactly the kind of connection good food makes you want to make. Exactly the kind that techno prevents and takeout mercifully provides.


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