On the edge of hipster territory near the revitalized Downtown Silver Spring, Bonifant Street may seem arid next to the wellspring of shops and eateries that brands the area. Gaze more closely at this micro-neighborhood, however, and Silver Spring’s true beauty emerges.
Gone with the polish of spanking-new structures is the pressure of impressive commercialism; glitzy, cookie-cutter McChain menus are happily missing. Instead, unpretentious eateries anchor the streetscape and dish up authentic cuisine from faraway lands. At the Mandalay Restaurant and Café, the menu reads like an appetizing travelogue of Myanmar, and tastes like my new favorite Saturday-night supper spot.
Content in expression, Buddha sits enshrined near the Mandalay’s front window, honored by fresh-cut flowers, oranges, and, curiously, a bowl of popcorn. His expression is apropos—the Mandalay Restaurant is one gratifying joint.
Joe Myint, manager of the family-owned establishment, runs the front of the house with Buddha calm and Clooney charm. Familiar, convivial interaction occurs commonly between Joe and his customers (who probably qualify as fans), some of whom have been regulars since 1999, when Mandalay in Silver Spring was University Donut in College Park.
Yep, Joe’s journey to serving cult-status Burmese food followed a peculiar route by way of donuts…and military coups.
In 1989, Joe and his entire family escaped the violence surrounding the 8888 Uprising in Burma (now Myanmar) and landed in Maryland. He spent the next 10 years in the restaurant biz, including managing an area Pizza Hut. In 1999, Joe and his brother opened University Donut, but soon realized they needed something to attract customers after the prime morning donut hours ended. Enter Joe’s mom, Hle Hme, who was, at the time, cooking for a Washington, DC, Burmese restaurant.
She joined the family operation in 2001 and began to compose Burmese dishes to the utter glee of the lunch and dinner set. Customers quickly outnumbered Joe’s eight tables, and a line of waiting patrons out the door, rain or shine, convinced him to seek a roomier location. Eventually, donuts were phased out, although they didn’t go quietly.
“We actually got hate letters when we stopped making donuts,” Joe recalls.
Such fanaticism may seem extreme, but I understand the mania after tasting Mandalay’s signature Baya Gyaw Gram Fritters, a culinary cousin to the sweet, fried dough. The savory split-pea cakes sing with ginger, garlic, and cilantro, and are deep fried to an impossibly fluffy texture.
Led by flavors associated with Thai food—ginger, lemon, curry, coconut, chili, sesame—Mandalay’s cooks are like composers, arranging flavor notes into symphonies of appetizers, salads, and main dishes.
Using hand-selected fresh produce from a neighborhood Korean market, the Gyinn Thoke (ginger salad) is an uncomplicated arrangement of sliced ginger and crunchy cabbage and carrots jolted by the rich peanut, sesame, and lime tangs in Mandalay’s Burmese dressing. One might expect the dressing recipe—a key ingredient in several recipes—to be guarded. On the contrary, it’s decoded on the menu, as are all of Mandalay’s dishes.
“People can try these recipes at home,” explains Joe, as if he were a neighbor handing out a notably good banana-bread recipe. He knows that even with spilled secrets, his customers will come back.
“I’m definitely coming back!” chirps my brother, Sean, scooping into seconds of tender chicken and potatoes bathed in an onion-tomato-based curry with masala. I have similar sentiments as I enjoy my rice-noodle stir fry with tofu, yellow beans, and crushed peanuts. Both dishes jump with divine spice, the heat of which can be adjusted as desired. Mandalay is very accommodating (they even carry wheat-free versions of their sauces), but do not ask them to substitute ingredients.