Expanding Tastes: What You Should Order at Rangoon Burmese Kitchen in Chinatown
Explore tribe dishes and other traditional tastes from Myanmar.
From left: rainbow salad and pork belly with mustard cabbage.
After talking to Khun Sai, the owner of Rangoon, I realize I’ve been ordering all the wrong dishes. Which isn’t to say that I’ve been unhappy with my choices. Since the Burmese restaurant opened in Chinatown last year, I’ve returned multiple times for the rainbow salad ($15), the chopped salad that makes all others look lazy in comparison—about 20 ingredients in different stages of life, from fresh to preserved, including shredded green papaya and cabbage, radishes and raisins, potatoes and tomatoes, dried shrimp and fried garlic, all having a wild party in a tart and sweet tamarind vinaigrette. No less fun are the fermented tea leaf salad ($14) and shredded green mango salad ($14), the first tasting of complex age, the latter of easy youth, but both full of contrast and crunch. Rangoon has a way of making vegetables some of the most exciting dishes on the menu. In comparison, the stir-fried chile lamb seems simpler, but it’s no less vibrant, with plenty of onions, dried chiles and cilantro.
So, no, I haven’t been disappointed. But, still, I’ve been missing out.
KACHIN WHOLE FISH.
Sai opened his first restaurant, Dagon, on King Street in 2014. The menu there leans Chinese Burmese, like the Burmese restaurants in San Francisco, where Sai lived before coming to O‘ahu. As an example, he singles out the eggplant, stir-fried with oyster sauce. “With Rangoon, because it’s in Chinatown, I make it less like Chinese food,” he says. “Here, focus more on Burmese dishes and tribe dishes.” Myanmar (formerly Burma) is home to more than a hundred different ethnicities and just as many languages. Sai is Kachin, and all of his cooks, originally from Myanmar, are each a different ethnicity—Chin, Mon and Bamar (the latter are the majority population in Myanmar and their language, Burmese, is the country’s official language).
So about a third of Rangoon’s menu is devoted to Kachin, Shan (one of the larger ethnic groups), and more traditional Burmese recipes. But perhaps the simplest explanation behind some of the fare at Rangoon is that they’re dishes “that I’m crazy, crazy about, from my childhood,” Sai says.
I’m pretty crazy about them, too, when I try them. The Kachin whole fish ($24) is smeared with a paste of pounded fresh herbs, including cilantro, plus a bit of Sichuan peppercorn, and then wrapped up with fern shoots in a banana leaf and baked. Burmese sour leaf, from a hibiscus varietal, lends a lemony tang to a heads-on prawn stew ($18). These dishes have more funk and verve than the dishes at Dagon. It’s as if with Dagon, both Sai’s and Honolulu’s first Burmese restaurant, Sai played it safe with tamer tastes. Here, emboldened by the enthusiastic reception, he took the training wheels off and let the flavors flow.
SEE ALSO: First Look: Rangoon Burmese Kitchen
Khun Sai wanted Rangoon to feature more traditional Burmese dishes than his first restaurant, Dagon.
Some feel familiar, like the pork belly with mustard cabbage ($16), the pickled vegetable cutting through thin, fatty slices of pork; it’s an easy dish to love for folks familiar with kim chee. The saucer-sized fried vegetable and shrimp cups ($12)—whole baby shrimp, shell and all, caged in a deep-fried prison of slivered onion—are cousins to Japanese kakiage. The pennywort salad ($10) might give some people pause, the tender leaves tasting of seaweed, but with the heavy dose of sesame seeds, it’s like eating a furikake salad.
The pennywort salad is a case of turning past misery into fond memories. Growing up in Myitkyina in northern Myanmar, Sai, as the oldest of four boys, was often tasked with cooking. He remembers it as a series of tedious tasks: building a wood fire to cook over, sorting out grains of rice, collecting tiny pennywort leaves. He hated it. But now, he loves the pennywort salad, maybe because he no longer has to pick the leaves, and as he grew older, discovered how well it pairs with cocktails, which he plans to offer as soon as he gets his liquor license.
He moved from Myanmar to San Francisco when he was 17 and studied electronic engineering at San Francisco State University. But the Great Recession hit when he graduated, so he found himself helping a friend, a Burmese restaurateur. He met other Burmese restaurant owners and decided, “I want to be like them someday,” he says. He even made a dreambook (“like a high school kid!”), pasting in photos of restaurants and coming up with names. He came to O‘ahu in 2011, following an opportunity to open a sushi bar franchise in the Pūpūkea Foodland; he’s since opened two more on the island. (Throughout the U.S., many supermarket sushi counters are run by Burmese, thanks to a Burmese immigrant who broke into the market in the late ’90s. His franchise drew in many refugees fleeing civil conflict in Myanmar.)
Sai’s neighbor, the owner of Café Maharani, encouraged him to do something other than sushi and open a Burmese restaurant. Sai hardly needed much more prodding. His enthusiasm for his country’s cuisine is apparent in a menu that’s more than 60 (yes, 60!) items long. Not all of the items are equally alluring. The curries are more mild than I’d like, and the biryani ($20), which you’d think would be loaded with flavor given all that’s thrown in (clove, cinnamon, cardamom, even three bone-in chicken thighs), underneath a palatha crust, somehow fades into blandness. Better to get the palatha as a side order ($5), to appreciate its flakiness.
As if 60 dishes weren’t enough, Sai has ideas for more. “Each tribe has its own unique dish,” he says. “If you love to play with dishes, it’s never-ending.” And it’s worth noting, in his dreambook, which he brought with him to Hawai‘i, there are names for four restaurants. Which means there is much more to come.
Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and 5 to 10 p.m. for dinner Monday through Saturday. 1131 Nu‘uanu Ave., (808) 367-0645.