Burmese immigrants made their way to America in two waves: first in the 1960s, after the military took over the government, then again in the late ’80s and early ’90s, after the national uprising in 1988. One of the places where these early immigrants settled and created communities was the Bay Area, which at one point was home to the largest Burmese population in America. As a result of immigrant entrepreneurship, the Bay also houses one of the highest concentrations of restaurants serving deeply delicious and complex Burmese cuisine.
The country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is a melting pot in its own right — the country contains 14 states, which are bordered by Thailand in the southeast, China in the northeast, and India and Bangladesh in the northwest. The people, the culture, and cuisine all vary region to region; it’s much more than tea leaf and “rainbow” salads.
The below is a list of regional Burmese dishes that can be found at various restaurants throughout the Bay Area. By no means is this a definitive “best-of” list. It is, however, a primer on the different dishes you can (and should) order. From mohinga to Shan noodles, this list offers an excellent version of each dish.
Mohinga at Donut Delight/Oriental Pastries
Mohinga is the unofficial national dish of Myanmar. It’s similar to Vietnamese pho in the sense that it’s a noodle soup dish eaten for breakfast, but that’s where the similarities end. The base is made from turmeric-coated catfish that’s simmered and ground into a steamy broth fortified with shallots, banana stem, shrimp paste, garlic, shallots, lemongrass and more — it’s simultaneously spicy, sour, savory, and somehow only slightly fishy. It’s served with rice noodles and garnished with cilantro, fried split yellow peas, and lemon or lime. The version at Donut Delight is exceptional, particularly considering it’s a doughnut shop in Union City that serves dim sum daily and Burmese food on the weekends. They also add a fried tempura-like opo squash (buu thee kyaw), which is common in Burma but a rarity in the Bay.
Pro tip: The owners are from the Shan State, which borders China in the north, so it’s worth ordering some of the Shan dishes on the menu, like the tofu salad, Shan noodles (Shan kauk swel), and the tofu nwai (soft tofu porridge with chicken and rice noodles) typically not available in most other Burmese restaurants in the Bay. The Burmese menu is only available on Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Head over early as lines can be long and the space is tiny.
34554 Alvarado Niles Rd, Union City, CA 94587
Shan Noodles at Ledu Restaurant
Another specialty of the Shan state is the eponymous Shan noodles, though no two versions are the same. Some have thin rice noodles, some thick; some are served with broth, some without; some have ground pork, and others cubed chicken. The version at Ledu features the latter protein, simmered in a mildly spicy tomato-based sauce topped with peanuts, green onion, and cilantro atop a bowl of thin rice noodles. It’s served with a side of chicken broth and spicy mustard greens — make sure to alternate bites of every component for the full experience.
Pro tip: The restaurant also serves an AYCE (all-you-can-eat) buffet that includes Chinese food that may have been sitting in steel steamers for too long. Skip that and ask for the Burmese menu. Must-orders include the palata and chicken curry, as well as the deep-fried shrimp with bean sprout salad.
749 Hickey Blvd, Pacifica, CA 94044
Pyay Paratha at Tharaphu Burmese Street Food
One hundred and sixty miles north of Yangon is a town called Pyay, located on the Irrawaddy river. Here you’ll find a dish called Pyay paratha: a pile of fried paratha (fried flaky multilayered fry bread) is chopped and balanced on a mound of chicken potato curry lentil, then topped with shredded cabbage, mint, green onion, lime, and spicy green chiles (careful, they pack a fiery punch). This dish comes from the Indian immigrants in Burma who arrived during British colonial rule in the 19th century.
Pro tip: Also consider having the tofu nway here — very few restaurants offer this tofu-porridge noodle dish, so it’s a great opportunity to try it.
2037 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704
A Thoke (Salad) at Grocery Café
Thoke translates to “mixed by hand” in Burmese and refers to the various “salads” that are ubiquitous on menus around the Bay. Perhaps most popular is the fermented tea leaf salad (lahpet thoke). In Burma, shredded cabbage is standard, rather than the romaine lettuce featured by many restaurants stateside, as well as the addition of the various crunchies: roasted nuts, seeds, fried garlic, and more. A refreshing ginger salad includes chopped cabbage, pickled ginger, and tomatoes in addition to the array of crispy bits. Noodle salad (khao swe thoke, popularly referred to on menus as “rainbow noodle salad,” mostly thanks to Burma Superstar) is served warm and composed of wheat noodles mixed with chickpea powder, tamarind, and fried shallots; it tastes slightly sweet. Samusa thoke is a hearty option made with — you guessed it, samusas — as well as the nan gyi thoke (made with rice noodles, coconut milk curried chicken, chickpea flour, and lime).
Pro tip: The portions are massive at Grocery Cafe, so it’s best to come with a group of two to four people if ordering multiple of these salads. Unless dining with a vegetarian or vegan, definitely pay the extra $1 to add dried shrimp to the mix — it adds a layer of oceanic umami that takes the salads to another level.
90 Franklin St, Oakland, CA 94606
Ohn No Khao Swe at Happy Myanmar Café
In many Thai restaurants in America, you’ll find a coconut curry chicken noodle soup dish called khao soi. It’s a popular street food in Chiang Mai; however, this dish actually originated in Burma, where it is called ohn-no khao swe (which translates to “coconut milk noodles”). The version at Happy Myanmar Café is simple and delicious: It contains wheat noodles covered in a mild coconut-milk curry chicken broth topped with more curried chicken, and garnished with sliced hard-boiled egg, cilantro, red onion, and fried wonton strips.
Pro tip: It’s served with a side of lemon, fish sauce, and dried crushed red chile, so season little by little until suitable for your own taste.
2025 Gellert Blvd Ste 200 Daly City, CA 94015
Curries at Golden Burma
The word “curry” is anglicized from the Tamil word kari, which means “sauce.” Compared to the Indian versions, Burmese curries are generally milder in the sense that they contain fewer spices and ingredients overall. A base of shallots and garlic is common, as well as a healthy amount of oil. Golden Burma, a hole in the wall located across the street from the SF Superior Courthouse, serves wonderful versions of Burmese curries: shrimp accented with tomatoes and fish sauce, chicken cooked slowly with turmeric and cayenne until tender, and beef that tastes heavily of bay leaves, without being overwhelming. None are overly oily and all pair well with coconut rice and roti.
Pro tip: Order one curry from the menu board, then ask for sides of other curries that are portioned smaller and priced accordingly to try a variety.
15 Boardman St, San Francisco, CA 94103
Danbauk (Chicken Biryani) at Burmese Kitchen
Biryani comes to Burma by way of India — it can be found throughout restaurants in Yangon, where it is prepared in giant pots. Here it is known as danbauk, and is often spiced with raisins, clove, and cinnamon, among other specific flourishes. At Burmese Kitchen on Geary, the restaurant prepares it properly by layering the marinated and spiced chicken leg and thigh with rice so that it cooks together — it’s a must order.
Pro tip: The tea leaf salad here is exceptional, as is the mohinga, which is slightly on the thicker side.
3815 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118
Platha & Dip at Burma Superstar
Many plathas at Burmese restaurants are of the frozen, pre-packaged variety (their perfectly circular shapes give them away). The platha at Burma Superstar is made from fresh dough daily, then stretched and cooked to order. It’s simultaneously flaky, crispy, buttery, and delicious. Dip into the accompanied chicken curry, or order a side to scoop up any of its insanely flavorful curries.
Pro tip: In order to avoid the long lines at the original Inner Richmond restaurant, head to Burma Love on Valencia, which was started by the Burma Superstar folks. It has the same menu (and more) and is equally delicious.
309 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94118
Everything on the Menu at Kyain Kyain
Though the restaurant is located in a random strip mall in Fremont that shares neighboring spots with a Filipino barbecue spot, a pizza joint, a sushi spot, a Korean tofu house, and a place to get your boba fix, eating at Kyain Kyain feels almost like eating in Myanmar. A quick look around confirms that this restaurant is where Burmese folks in the Bay come to eat. Everything is pretty spectacular here; the samusas are plump and crispy; the curries are on the oily side, yet still delicious; and the mohinga is thick and rich. Do not miss the tea leaf salad here — it is extra bitter, fermented, umami-forward, and tastes just like the stuff in Myanmar.
Pro tip: For a sweet treat, try the falooda, a sweet drink made with rose water, milk, strawberry ice cream, tapioca, coconut jelly, and egg custard.
3649 Thornton Ave, Fremont, CA 94536
Samusa Soup at Mandalay
Mandalay on California Street is the first and oldest Burmese restaurant in San Francisco. The samusa soup here is worth trying, especially on a cold foggy San Francisco night. It’s filled with pieces of falafel, samusa, potatoes, lentils, shredded cabbage, and mint leaf, making it slightly sour, vegetarian, and delicious.
Pro tip: In Burma, tea leaf salad is often served with only the fried crunchy nuts and seeds without cabbage and at the end of the meal with dessert to aid digestion — here at Mandalay, you can do both.
4348 California St, San Francisco, CA 94118
Garlic Noodles (House Noodles) at YAMO
Fried garlic noodles can be found all over Southeast Asia: the difference with the Burmese version is that instead of the usual trio of Parmesan, butter, and raw garlic, these feature a healthy amount of fried garlic. The version at Yamo is called House Noodle and is incredibly satisfying. Order a hot or cold version topped with chicken or beef — we recommend the hot house noodle with beef. It’s simple, delicious and at $6, perfect.
Pro tip: Yamo is a small restaurant with counter-only seating — you’ll leave smelling of fried oil, so don’t wear clothes you care about, or order your food to go. Also, don’t bust out your camera unless you want to get scolded by one of charming sisters behind the counter.
3406 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94110