From the moment I crunched into my first tea leaf salad, the beguiling flavors and textures of Burmese cuisine left a stamp on my brain. When I craved it, I had to have it.
That wasn't so easy when San Francisco's Burma Superstar was the only option in the area. Still, I remember waiting over an hour outside that tiny Inner Richmond restaurant to get my fix of crunchy fried garlic and pungent tea leaves tossed with lemony peanuts, sesame seeds and dried shrimp.
When the restaurant opened its first outpost in Alameda -- and later, in Oakland -- I literally celebrated, dragging my dad through the Caldecott Tunnel in pouring rain so we could tuck into bowls of chef U Win Aye's handmade, lentil-flecked samosa soup.
Now Aye, a Rangoon native, who also helmed the kitchen at Rangoon Ruby in Palo Alto, has opened his first restaurant: Rangoon Super Stars in Berkeley. After a recent Sunday night visit, I am confident it will be my go-to spot for years of cravings to come.
For starters, Rangoon Super Stars (no connection to the SF original) seats 100 people, so those long waits are over (they also take reservations). Even when full, as it was on our visit, the restaurant is pleasantly quiet, most likely because it is broken up into three separate, walled-off dining rooms. Lastly, it's located on a low-key strip of Telegraph Avenue, so street parking is ample.
Meanwhile, Aye's cooking stays true to the cuisine's Thai, Chinese and Indian influences, but I like the subtle changes and risks he takes. The Tea Leaf Salad ($10.99) arrives in a large bowl with all the ingredients in neat piles, including slivers of romaine lettuce and various seeds and dried beans -- Aye doesn't puree the musky tea leaves like most restaurants do, but rather keeps them whole for bigger flavor. Following tradition, a server mixes the salad tableside, adding a squeeze of lemon (I always ask for two or three).
This time, instead of samosa soup, we ordered Monk Hingar ($10.99), a pureed catfish chowder that gets its flavor from lemon grass, ginger and garlic, and its creamy texture from whole catfish that Aye boils and mashes into an aromatic broth. I loved the complementary crunch from fried mung bean cakes. If pureed fish soup sounds off-putting to you, trust me, it's not. It's a beautiful, alluring chowder, especially with the addition of thin, slippery rice noodles.
My favorite dish of the evening, however, was the Burmese Country Style Lamb Curry ($14.99), a traditional red curry made with garlic, onion, tamarind and red chiles that we ordered mild (it also comes medium, hot or, if you dare, very hot) in order to savor the tender chunks of lamb. Spooned atop an order of steaming coconut rice ($2.50), the sweet-and-spicy flavors were simply meant to be.
We dialed up the spice on our order of Rangoon String Beans ($9.99), which are not string beans but rather crunchy green beans sauteed and served in a garlic and red-chile-flecked sauce. Like many Asian restaurants, Rangoon Super Stars' list of entrees was long and overwhelming, with at least five options in each protein category -- such as beef, pork, lamb, chicken, seafood, tofu and vegetables -- in addition to those fantastic soups, salads, and appetizers. (If you like fried Chinese pancakes, try the Palata ($7.99), a warm and chewy multilayered bread that comes with a sweet curry for dipping. Yelpers love it.)
Since it is pumpkin season, we finally settled on the Pumpkin Pork Stew ($13.99), which was also a red-based curry made with onions, garlic, ginger, and enough tamarind to give it a slightly sour edge. It was tasty, and the pork was perfectly braised, but I prefer the Thai version of this dish, with its coconut base and brighter flavors.
Perhaps we should have tried one of the Indian-inspired wok-tossed dishes, like Beef Kebat ($13.99) with masala and mint leaves, or a noodle dish, like the simple but intriguing Rangoon Super Stars Noodles ($9.99), tossed with cubed tofu, cucumbers, cilantro, cabbage, tomato, and chili sauce. Next time.
Between the efficient service, reasonable prices (nothing's more than $16) and delicious food, I know we'll be back soon.
Rangoon super stars
" * * *
WHERE: 2826 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley
CONTACT: 510-647-9744; www.rangoonsuperstars.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. daily
VEGETARIAN: Try the Samosa Soup, Burmese Eggplant Curry or Pea Leaf Tofu.
BEVERAGES: Sodas, but they have applied for a beer and wine license.
NOISE LEVEL: Quiet
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: Coconut rice. Enough said.
PLUSES: New, large restaurant where you can sample Burmese favorites made by a chef you know and trust.
MINUSES: Too many entrees have similar ingredients and descriptions, so choosing can be difficult.
DATE OPENED: September
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of 1 to 4, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40