Burma Superstar, Molly Shannon and High School Religion Classes

My last stop in the San Francisco area was at Burma Superstar, the iconic Richmond area eatery offering the mysterious food of Burma.  Although Burma is now technically Myanmar, I suppose not having to change the menu or threatening the near 25 year old brand is more important than geographical accuracy.  Plus, whenever I hear the name I think of two things; Molly Shannon and high school religion classes.  When Burma Superstar was only 7 years old, Molly Shannon and a much younger Will Farrell starred in Superstar which was based on the Saturday Night Live skit.  My daughter took quite a liking to the film and almost killed herself trying to do the razzle dazzle on a slippery hardwood floor.  On the positive side, it  opened up the door for me to add “don’t make out with trees” to the list of things to cover off in birds and bees talk we had later.  Regarding school, I had a Catholic education  and one thing you could count on was that once a year a teacher would forfeit the normal religion lesson to show the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar right around the time of the Passion.

Based on the numerous web reviews, I knew a visit to Burma Superstar even early on a Saturday evening would mean a line and I was right. We were politely told that the wait would be somewhere in the area of 45 minutes to an hour. I made a note that our table would be right after a couple of sweet old ladies who signed in just before me.   We were offered B*Star, Burma Superstar’s sister restaurant as an alternative and, after careful deliberation, we opted for the original instead of the sequel and walked around the neighbourhood for a while.

We were seated in a little less than 45 minutes and, as anticipated, right behind the old ladies. It  was a crowded and tight place but we had some reprieve since we were sitting right by the window. We started the highly recommended signature tea leaf  salad.  It arrived to the table separated into the numerous ingredients (including tomatoes, jalapenos, beans, seeds, fried garlic and a fermented green tea paste) which were skillfully combined table side.  The magic in this salad lies in the tea paste for unami and the aromatic fried garlic which elevate the other ingredients.  The textural differences were appealing as well.

Another house favorite is the pumpkin pork stew.  This is a bit of a misnomer since it is technically made with kaboucha squash.  Also called Japanese pumpkin, this gourd is revered for its aphrodisiac qualities which, if I would have known at the time, I may have avoided given the long plane ride home given the fact I was planning to  change into jogging pants.  It all worked out though. The gross, crowded red-eye home quashed any chance of arousal at 35000 feet. The prominent flavour in the curry was ginger which was a refreshing compliment to the squash. Although I enjoyed the uniqueness of the dish, the kaboucha was very dominant and it’s slimy/starchy texture wouldn’t work for everybody.

Pork and Pumpkin Stew
Pork and Pumpkin Stew

I’ll stop here for a second to provide an update on the old ladies that were seated just before us. They were within eyesight and I was impressed by a couple of things.  First, they there using the napkins bib-style, meaning they were really getting down to business. Second, each had an Asian beer in the bottle (screw the glass), which they were sucking back rapidly in between bites.  Third, those dishes just didn’t stop.  One after another, what seemed like a significant part of the menu arrived at the table and yet they tackled them all in that graceful old lady manner.  I think I actually teared up and hoped that one day, in my elder years, I could bust into a restaurant and show a bunch of privileged hipsters how to strap on the feedbag.

The third was the Burmese chicken and shrimp casserole. My rationale for this dish was simple; cook anything in a clay pot and I’m happy.  In addition, anything with peas makes me happy.  I really enjoyed it.  The use of the bone-in chicken, the perfectly cooked shrimp and the fact the dish had the elements of both Thai and Indian cuisine were all positives.  It was like a jacked up Pad Thai married  with a chicken and shrimp biryani.

Chicken and Shrimp Casserole
Chicken and Shrimp Casserole

For dessert I had to try the black rice pudding which we split as a table. It looked like my son’s attempt at a creative bowl of cereal in the morning.  It was well balanced between sweet and savory which was catalyzed by the fresh fruit and the abundant use of sesame seeds and almonds.

Black Rice Pudding
Black Rice Pudding

To end everything off, I glanced over at the old ladies who were looking quite content as they finished off a dessert of their own and  tipped my hat to them out of a combination of sheer respect and an overwhelming feeling of  awe.

My Take  

Burma Superstar is listed as a San Francisco must in almost every magazine and website in existence. It’s success has resulted in the emergence of a number of Burmese eateries including B*Star by the same owners down the street  which offers many of the same dishes. The wait is inevitable and long, the quarters are cramped and the food is good. I got schooled by old ladies and was scared to change into my roots jogging pants. In the end, I didn’t want to sing “Hosanna!” from the mountaintops (or my desktop if I was still in high school) or break into the razzle dazzle but I would rate it much higher than 32% on rotten tomatoes.

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