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Restaurants : Golden Triangle Has a Corner on Burmese Cuisine

June 01, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

Question: What do tea leaf salad, catfish chowder, sour tamarind leaf and chicken curry noodles have in common?

Answer: They're Burmese dishes found at Golden Triangle. This Whittier restaurant is named for the poppy-growing region where Laos and Thailand border on Myanmar (formerly Burma).

One of my friends just returned from a visit to Myanmar and had to laugh when I ran down a list of dishes from Golden Triangle's menu.

"It's impossible to get these dishes in restaurants over there," he said. "You know what my favorite dish was in Myanmar? Oranges."

With its rich history and magnificent landscape of shimmering lakes and ruined pagodas, Myanmar is the stuff travel dreams are made of. But for decades it was sealed from the outside world by a brutal government that discouraged tourism.

The upside is a country remarkably in touch with the past. But the downside is a nation mired in poverty and in which few of its 50 million inhabitants are allowed contact with foreigners.

And as my friend found, Myanmar is emphatically not set up for tourism. Rice and oranges might be all you find in a restaurant.

Ah, but we have a full-service Burmese restaurant right here in historic uptown Whittier. Surprising, perhaps--but this tranquil, tree-lined area is a surprise in itself, amid the gas stations and tract houses of the lower San Gabriel Valley. As for the restaurant, it is long, dim and simply appointed, with lots of narrow booths, glass-topped tables and posters of Thailand.

Thailand? Yes--this is a Thai as well as a Burmese restaurant. The owners, a couple named Yu, are bicultural. He's Burmese, she's Thai.

The Thai dishes are just fine here, but because they are commonplace in Southern California, it is the Burmese menu that compels. Take tea leaf salad ( lap pat thoke on the menu): a dense mix of tea leaves, sesame seeds, crushed peanuts, deep-fried garlic, green onions and spices. Ginger salad is nearly identical, substituting pungent shredded ginger for the tea leaves.

Mo hin nga is translated on the menu as catfish chowder. For this, a tamarind-flavored catfish stock is brought bubbling to the table in a silver tureen with purple flames shooting up from a hole in the center. Next comes a dish loaded with crunchy shards of deep-fried fish, crushed peanuts, cilantro and rice noodles. You put these ingredients in a soup bowl, then ladle on the broth. This wonderful soup seems to mix the flavors of a muddy Burmese river with the goodness of rich farmland soil. (Those who find it too earthy can always fall back on tom ka gai , the familiar Thai chicken soup thickened with coconut milk.)

Myanmar is bordered, in part, by Thailand and Bangladesh, and Burmese felafel are golden patties of fried split peas that taste exactly like something you'd get in a Calcutta bazaar, flavored heavily with onion and cumin. Burmese curries taste more Indian than Thai, more aromatically spiced and less peppery.

Perhaps Golden Triangle's most extraordinary dish is the one called chin baung kyaw , where a sour, leafy Burmese vegetable is sauteed with shrimp, chiles and bamboo shoots. The owners actually grow this vegetable themselves and freeze the harvest so they can use it throughout the year. Or most of the year--they always run out right about now, so at the moment they are making it with sour tamarind leaves. They're sour enough for me, though not, I'm told, for the Burmese palate.

Let's not ignore the Thai dishes altogether. There is a delicious yum neuah , a piquant grilled beef salad eaten with cabbage and a sweet and sour dressing, and an equally mean Thai barbecued chicken (which is wonderful with Burmese coconut-flavored steamed rice). Honey spareribs--not nearly as sweet as they sound--are stewed in a complex red sauce and so tender the meat falls off the bones.

But why order plain old pad Thai when you can have kauekswe thok ? These egg noodles are flavored with tamarind, lemon, curry spices and minced onion, and they are a welcome change.

For dessert, the restaurant has an extensive list of homemade tropical ice creams, including coconut, ginger, pandanus leaf and even one made from the legendary durian--a green, spiky, smelly fruit that has caused many an otherwise brave diner to flee in terror. Pa law penan is a heavy, pudding-like sweet dish made from cassava and coconut, served warm in rectangular slices.

I haven't been lucky enough to catch the kitchen with its Burmese soybean pudding, called shwe gi mok , but there is always hot, sweet ginger tea on hand, a natural complement to a Burmese feast. Myanmar-watchers are hoping that that brave, fascinating nation will have a future half as sweet.

Golden Triangle is inexpensive to moderate. Appetizers, soups and salads, are $3.95 to $7.75. Main dishes are $4.95 to $12.95.

* GOLDEN TRIANGLE

* 7011 Greenleaf Ave., Whittier.

* (310) 945-6778.

* Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.

* All major cards.

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