Flavors of Burma come to Pleasanton with new spot downtown
By Lou Fancher
Customers at Experience Burma dip crunchy fried chicken wings into spicy lemon sauce, munch on mouth-pleasing nuts, seeds, garlic and beans in bitter-tart fermented tea leaf salads or delight in catfish chowder with rice noodles, onions, cilantro, egg, split yellow peas and lemon.
Dining family-style with shared plates is encouraged. The options include wok fried chicken prepared with fish sauce and red bell peppers or rich garlic noodles fused with BBQ pork — or tangy sesame seed beef, lemongrass chicken, fiery tofu with vegetables and more.
“The more we recommend dishes, the more people order a variety. It’s fine to have one meal for an individual, but here, it’s more family-style,” says co-owner Jordan Kyu.
His co-owner and wife, Myat Soe Mon, shares operational responsibilities for the Burmese restaurant that opened in early October. They have owned Holy Grill Burger Joint in San Francisco for just over two years. Experience Burma is their first foray as restaurateurs in the East Bay.
“We were actually in Pleasanton to try pasta at an Italian restaurant and we fell in love with the downtown. We knew we wanted to bring our family history and Burmese culture to the Tri-Valley, not just the food,” says Mon.
Mon and Kyu grew up separately in Burma, but met after coming to the United States to attend college. Kyu attended San Jose State University and is a capacity and management engineer for Comcast. Mon holds an undergraduate degree from UC Davis and an MBA from Golden Gate University in San Francisco. She brings background as a senior specialist in bank lending services to her work supervising Experience Burma’s financials. They have a two-year-old son and live in Union City.
“One of us is at the restaurant at all times,” says Kyu. An onsite presence, he insists, continues his family’s traditions and ensures customers are not simply well-fed, they are well-informed. “I grew up eating with family that extended outside immediate family to my grandma, all the kids and grandkids. If the food was good, the family vibe good, then I enjoyed it.”
Mon lived above the restaurant her family owned for more than two decades. Her father was the chef and the mention of her father chokes Mon’s words as tears threaten to take over her usual brisk, concise speech.
“My father cared about the quality of his food,” she said. “He specialized in Chinese, but cooked everything we wanted. Even when we were busy, we took time to eat together. The fried chicken he made is my favorite and is on the appetizer menu.”
From her father, Mon learned to carefully select and display all ingredients before beginning to cook. “I care about presentable dishes, tasty, but also beautiful to look at.”
Freshness governs Burmese cooking that is most influenced by Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisines. “Mangos are available in Burma year round, always fresh,” says Mon. “They also go well with many meats, so they are used often.”
Similarly, the produce and meat at Experience Burma is selected daily for freshness. No dishes are rewarmed or prepared in advance. “We cook everything day-of,” says Kyu, “nothing reheated.”
Flavors and textures are varied, but balanced: a bold chili pepper is made mild with the infusion of “bone sweetness” drawn from boiled catfish. Crisp, spicy fried garlic, onions and beans are countered by fluffy samosas (dumplings) and platha (bread).
Service matters as much as the decor that includes curated art, furnishings and photographs that contribute atmosphere and serve as talking points. “We draw in the history behind the food, if customers are interested,” said Kyu.
The waitstaff is trained through one-on-one tasting sessions that include education about flavors and ingredients. It’s a two-way street, says Mon, who relied on the chefs to recommend the most feasible, delicious dishes while developing the menu.
Tri-Valley customers, the couple says, fall into two camps. People familiar with Burmese cuisine are thrilled to no longer have to drive to San Francisco or the Peninsula for the food they love. Customers new to Burmese food remark on its freshness and appreciate discovering a new experience in the area’s already-diverse cuisine. “We already have repeat customers and people who come in for lunch and return at dinner with their families,” said Kyu.
Mon said customers provide useful feedback on social media and at YELP and other online review sites. “We can’t satisfy everyone: a rice eater will comment on rice proportions; a pasta lover with say the amount of pasta is small. If customers have to wait 20 minutes because we are at capacity, we need to tell them or turn them away if they cannot wait.”
Already inclined to support refugee organizations, veterans and most recently, victims of the fires in Napa and Sonoma (they donated unneeded equipment and dishes purchased as part of taking ownership of the location), Mon expects to continue. “I want to be involved, to help humanitarian needs. Not because of the restaurant, but because I want to do it. To try to learn about others and to help are ways to communicate. We need things that use all of our skills to bring community together.”