If you're a wannabe food anthropologist as I am, tasting the dishes at the new Irrawaddy Taste of Burma in Stanton will be as fascinating as it is delicious. For here's a cuisine that, because of Myanmar's location on the map, has elements of Thai, Indian and Chinese blurred and blended with the indigenous, creating something completely new.
Take, for example, the first dish I tried: lahpet thoke, which resembles a three-way collision between a garden salad, a bowl of Chex Mix and a mortar of pesto. I should clarify that the last part isn't actually pesto; it's lahpet, fermented tea leaves mashed to nearly pulp in oil. Lahpet is so ingrained in Burmese cuisine it's considered the national delicacy. And in this salad, which all first-timers to Irrawaddy must order, it lashed together all the components—the lettuce, the tomato, the cabbage and the crunchy fried lentils—with sour notes, tannic overtones and a flavor that's as uniquely Burmese as nuoc mam is Vietnamese.
Lahpet is so beloved that there's an old Burmese proverb that states, "Of all the fruit, the mango's the best; of all the meat, the pork's the best; and of all the leaves, lahpet's the best." So you can be sure that Irrawaddy, the only Burmese restaurant in Orange County, is going to use it in more than just that salad. Lahpet is also in the tea leaf beef and tea leaf lamb. If you've had Indonesian rendang before, this dish will remind you of a less intense version of it. Instead of being covered in a brown spice paste, however, the meat hunks had the swampy green of the tangy lahpet leaves clinging to them and looking not unlike canned spinach. It's not an attractive dish; dishes such as these never are. Nor was the curried version of the beef and lamb that's redolent of turmeric, coriander and cumin. Both were the kind of long-stewed, rustic, home-cooked meal made for consumption with plenty of rice.
If you're here during lunch, you could opt to have the tea leaf or curry dishes as rice plates served in individual-sized portions. But since it's conceivable to order a rice plate, eat it and never realize you're in a Burmese restaurant, it's the wrong way to approach Irrawaddy. A dish called Taut Taut Pork is basically sweet-and-sour, and despite the chayote in an exceedingly well-done Chinese-style chicken stir-fry with baby corn, you wouldn't bat an eye if it were served at a Pick Up Stix. The better way to do Irrawaddy is to bring a whole bunch of people, preferably friends from different parts of the world, and order à la carte. After the dishes are passed around, your tablemates will express surprise on how the foods of disparate cultures overlap into Burmese cuisine as though it were the center of a Venn diagram.
There are samusas, parathas and biryanis that could pass muster in New Delhi. There's a noodle dish called shan kauk swear that could easily be mistaken for pad Thai in Bangkok. And despite having nearly 2,000 miles of landmass and sea between Myanmar and the Philippines, the nun gyi thote—thick rice noodles slightly wetted with curry, dusted in toasted chickpea flour, then garnished with hard-boiled egg slices and crispy crackers—is a pretty damn close approximation to a Pinoy dish called pancit malabon.
Still, there are some items that are unique to Burmese cuisine. Moh hinga—the Burmese national dish of noodles in a catfish-based broth garnished with lentils and sliced hard-boiled eggs—started out bland until I seasoned it with squirts of fish sauce and squeezes of lemon. And then there's Burmese tofu, which wasn't made from soybean, but rather ground chickpea flour, resulting in a texture closer to airy polenta than bean curd.
The best dish I ate at Irrawaddy was the one appropriately called Rainbow Salad. It had everything from noodles to shredded vegetables, plus a few more ingredients I won't list in the interest of space. But it was as though I tasted the entire color spectrum of world cuisine, including Indonesian gado-gado, Chinese sesame noodles and American potato salad—all in one mouthful. For dessert, there's par lu dar, a rose-syrup-flavored, milky-soup mish-mash of jellies, grape-clusters of tapioca, pieces of flan and a scoop of ice cream in a sundae bowl. The group that I brought noted that it had all the best parts of Filipino halo-halo, Indonesian es campur and Vietnamese chè, but by then, we were tired of listing what Burmese food tasted like and decided that it was just, well, great!
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Irrawaddy Taste of Burma, 7076 Katella Ave., Stanton, (714) 252-8565; www.irrawaddytasteofburma.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $25-$50, food only. Beer and wine.