This is the only Burmese restaurant in Philly, and one of the best places in Chinatown. I've been lucky enough to have sampled Burmese food in San Francisco (Burma Superstar) and the Washington, DC area (Mandalay) and I'm happy to report that this restaurant compares favorably, I'd pick this as my favorite among these three.
Despite a plain exterior, the decor is more elegant than many places in the neighborhood, so it's a good place to take someone who is a little queasy about the more down-and-dirty spots in Chinatown. But the real reason to go is the food. Burma (sorry, I'm not going to call it Myanmar) is not far from India, Thailand and China, and the cuisine reflects that. There are curries, stir-fries, noodle dishes and some unique salads.
Unless you have some misguided aversion to ginger, you must start with the Spring Ginger salad. Finely shredded ginger is paired with cabbage, toasted lentils, peanuts and tomato in a light and refreshing citrusy dressing. The ginger is very intense, but not overwhelming. I've never had anything like this salad anywhere, and I'm hooked.
The string bean salad is also excellent, and very similar, just without the tingly bite of ginger. And if you need a little caffeine, another salad is made with tea leaves.
The shrimp soup is very spicy, and pleased my dining partners on a recent trip. I often get the pea soup, which is thick and comforting, with bits of crunchy fried onion on the top. Pumpkin soupwas thick and a little chunky, with a wonderful flavor enhanced by mild spices.
Lentil Fritters are excellent, and can be spicy! Golden triangles are variations on the Indian samosa. Barbecue beef with 1,000 layer bread is often good, although the tenderness of the shish-kebab-ish barbecue beef varies. The bread is excellent, and can be ordered by itself, or paired with different curries to dip in. Our favorite is a small bowl of chicken curry. This is very similar to the equally fine Roti Canai at the Malaysian restaurant Penang, but with a thicker, layered, bread.
There are entrees called "Kebab" that are in fact stir-fries, (and delicious.) There are chicken and beef curries, the ones with lemon grass are especially good. The only thing we've had that we didn't absolutely love was the Chicken Cutlet. It was wholesome and satisfying, but a bit lackluster, a large breaded and fried chicken cutlet covered with vegetables and a very mild sauce. One thing to keep an eye on, most of the fish dishes, and the seafood in general, are prepared as breaded, deep-fried nuggets. That's not necessarily bad, just be aware in case you don't care for the breading.
After a period of inconsistency, I'm happy to say that Kung Pau Beef has been reliably good lately. This dish is nothing like the Chinese kung pau. Instead it is small slices of meat, stir fried at a terrifyingly high heat with chiles, ginger, onions, and some secret Burmese spices. There's no sauce to speak of, but a rich, salty, dark reduction that can be addictive.
DDP recently got the "Chili Seafood" which featured a nice variety: shrimp, squid, scallops, chunks of white fish, with fresh vegetables in a spicy red sauce. The sauce was very tasty, but all the seafood was breaded and fried, which made the dish rather heavy overall, and didn't do much for the texture of the ingredients. (There are variations on this with many ingredients, Chili Chicken, Chili Ribs - pictured -etc.) If you want a lighter seafood preparation, you may need to look to the specific squid or scallop or shrimp preparations.
Noodle dishes can be unique, ask the waiter or waitress to describe them. We like the Northern Burma Fried noodles. It is not all that exotic: chow-fun-style wide, flat rice noodles with chicken, shrimp, and vegetables, served with slices of lemon to perk it up. Sounds ordinary, but it still has some distinctly Burmese spicing that we keep returning for. It usually has a little spice, but a recent visit with XXPDP and MDDP prompted a flamingly hot rendition, so you might want to indicate how hot you want it, and if you say you want it really hot, they won't fool around!
Night Market Noodles sounded more interesting than they turned out to be, the fairly mild thin noodles with chopped pork are good, but work better as a side dish than as a main attraction.
I really like the "Festival Rice" an Indian Pulau-type rice pilaf. Tinted a deep orangey-yellow, it is loaded with big chunks of curried chicken and raisins. It takes some vigilance to avoid the whole spices, and trust me, you don't want to chomp down on a cardamom pod if it can be avoided. The majority of my dining partners seem to have a rather unforgivable prejudice against raisins, so I'm often outvoted at ordering time. But whenever I can talk an unsuspecting companion into it, I get the Festival Rice.
Like the noodles, many of the vegetable dishes also work better as sides than as entrees. Monsoon vegetables was good, an amalgam of vegetables stewed together in a flavorful curry. Spicy eggplant was tasty, but so hot we could barely eat it, and we like hot stuff. This could be an anomaly, we have noticed a bit of variation night-to-night on spice. It is usually very good even on the lower end of the oscillation, so we have never left unsatisfied. The vegetable section has expanded significantly over the years, and there is now a rather extensive selection of vegetarian dishes. Be sure to ask though, if it matters, dried shrimp powder is often used as a spice, so strict vegetarians still need to be cautious.
This is definitely a place that is best experienced as a meal-sharing event. There is a wide range of flavors and textures, and the meal is much more enjoyable with a little diversity and coordination between those in your party. Or ask your waiter or waitress, he or she will be happy to balance your order to give a rounded meal.
Service is excellent, and prices are in line with Chinatown. Two can eat very well for about $30 including tip, and even get out cheaper if you try.
Rangoon does serve Beer and Wine. No Burmese beer is available, but Tsing Tao or Singha goes very well with this cuisine.
© 2000-2007 Philadining. Reviews may be excerpted by the reviewed restaurant with proper credit to philadining.com. Any other use without written permission is prohibited.