Fermented Tea Leaf Salad at Golden Triangle (long, with a bit of linguistic and historical interest)
It had been over a year since my last visit to Golden Triangle in Whittier, when pleasurepalate's post entitled '"Burmese Feast" at Golden Triangle (review with pics),' reminded me I had to go back.
Now, to be completely honest, I've always had mixed feelings about Golden Triangle... much of the menu just isn't very good. There's a reason that many early reviews of the restaurant were negative. At Golden Triangle they try to do too many things, and only do bits and pieces well. Thai dishes, especially, can go unappealingly awry in their hands.
That being said, it's a general rule that if one sticks with the Burmese items on the menu one can't go far wrong. To that end, there are a large number of items on their nearly 100 item long menu that I've never tried. But the fact that I’d never tried their Fermented Tea Leaf Salad, one of my favorite Burmese dishes, was surprising. So, to that end, my wife and I schlepped out to Whittier to right this wrong.
It was an eye-opening experience.
First of all, for those who haven't been to Golden Triangle, a bit must be said about the physical appearance of the restaurant. Golden Triangle has been serving Burmese and Thai food on Greenleaf in Whittier for more than 15 years. Not much has changed in that time. Not the split naugahide seats in the booths, not the scuffed white anodized chairs at the tables. Not the hazy plastic covers on the tables themselves. Not the faded Tiger Lager advertisements. Not the BIZARRE two toilet bathrooms... no stalls, just two toilets in the middle of a filthy concrete cell.
Those of us who love ethnic dives feel like we've come home... those who prefer to be wafted through our meals on a cloud of luxury run for the door with a starched white handkerchief covering the nose and mouth. Golden Triangle isn't really a dive, but it's a bit of a belly flop.
Now, a tidbit of linguistic interest before we order. "Thoke" is an important syllable to toss about freely when composing a Burmese menu. The word means "mix." Anything in which a variety of ingredients are mixed can be a "thoke."
Salad is a thoke. An ice-cream sundae is a thoke. Fried rice, given enough ingredients, could be a thoke. You get the idea.
In Burma there is no specific cultural tradition of a mixed green salad. But, in Burmese American restaurants there is ALWAYS a salad section on the menu. In these cases what is generally being served is a wide selection of thoke.
From prior dining experiences I've memorized a few... Young ginger salad is Ginn Thoke. Glass noodle salad is Kauswe Thoke. And, fermented tea leaf salad is Laped Thoke...
Of course there's an obvious problem... Burmese is a transliterated language. There's no generally accepted spelling of any of these words, and I speak nary a word of Burmese. Recognizing these salads on a menu can be something of a trick.
Which is why, #24 on the Golden Triangle menu spelled "Lap Pad Dok (Burmese)" without an associated description never previously jumped out at me.
Today it did.
So, my wife and I ordered the “Lap Pad Dok,” the Ginger Salad (which are available plated together as #24A on the menu for those who want half orders of each). The waitress took down the order and departed, as waitresses so often do.
Now, while we’re waiting for the meal to be delivered, please indulge an old man while he expounds upon culture a bit...
Unlike the other Burmese restaurants, Golden Triangle doesn't proudly celebrate its Burmese cultural traditions. Instead it tries to hide them behind a veneer of mediocre Thai cookery. The vast majority of the restaurants patrons probably have little notion that the best portion of the menu is in fact fairly traditional Burmese cuisine. In a sense, Golden Triangle pays the rent with steaming plates of Pad Thai... and carefully nurtures a more discerning clientele who appreciates their unusually pure renditions of Burmese national dishes.
Which is why a thoke at Golden Triangle doesn't have a bed of lettuce beneath it. Or tomatoes in it. Or a vinaigrette. Or... well any of the touchstones that make a salad a salad to a western palate.
Because, when you get right down to the heart of the matter a thoke, a real Burmese thoke, is just Indian chaat by another name. Burma was administered by India until 1937, and the cultural influences have a way of lingering. The border between the two nations is long and porous, and good ideas have meandered across over time.
Obvious cultural residue, like Pratha, and Samosas (always spelled "samusa" on Burmese menus as one has one's national pride), stand out as obvious analogs, but more subtle connections exist. And the connection between chaat, especially bhel puri and some varieties of papri chaat, and Burmese thoke can be a subtle one.
But the salads at Golden Triangle have a way of making these connections abundantly clear. In fact, with this bit of history in mind their ginger salad is hard to see as a salad at all.
The recipe, variously reported, seems to feature fried onion, fried garlic, crispy yellow peas, ground peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, toasted puri, and, as a bit of an afterthought a very sparing smattering of shredded young ginger, cabbage (or lettuce it’s hard to tell in such tiny strips), and red peppers. You’d be forgiven for missing the eponymous ginger entirely. As a salad all crunch and savor with no green or acid. And for all that, it’s delectable.
With such an extreme rendition of ginger salad on the menu, I looked forward to my fermented tea leaf salad with particular fascination. Would it feature more greens, as previous versions I’d sampled had, or would it rely more heavily on the tea leaves themselves to do the heavy lifting.
I could hardly wait to see what was delivered to the table. But when it arrived, ferried by our kind and helpful waitress, my heart sank...
The thoke I received was not the familiar "laped thoke" of other Burmese restaurants, like Burma Superstar in San Francisco. Oh no.
It was exactly the same as the plate of ginger salad beside it, with a deep earthy green tinge to it. This was not what I was expecting at all. No wonder #24A offered the two items plated together -- the ingredients, with the exception of the fermented tea leaves, were precisely the same. What a disappointment.
Then we tucked in...
Now, up until that first bite, ginger salad had been one of my wife’s absolute favorite treats. Given the choice between Indian chaat, Thai green papaya salad, and Burmese ginger salad she would have chosen the ginger salad every time. Washed down with a ginger lemonade, followed by ginger ice cream. I’m nowhere near as devoted to the stuff as she is.
Which is why I was surprised when she confessed, after a bite or two of each salad, “Well, this ginger salad tastes like it’s missing an ingredient now that I’ve had the other.”
And she was right. The ginger salad was a pale cousin of the “Lap Pad Dok.” It was no contest at all. The green tinged version was the Hulk to the ginger salad’s Bruce Banner. It was bigger and better (with the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound). The winey, herbal notes of the fermented tea leaves gave depth and roundness to the earthy, garlicky notes of the typical ginger salad. It was a Technicolor version of the pale beige original.
Which brings me to the eye-opening part.
Tea Leaf Salad is one of natures more efficient caffeine delivery vehicles. As someone who doesn't drink soft drinks, coffee, or much in the way of tea, I'm not hardened to the effects of the leaf that refreshes.
I veritably bounced out the door of the Golden Triangle feeling ten years younger. I may have sung a bit, the memory is hazy. I dashed home. I sat down. I began to type. After composing a three sonnets, two limericks, and a haiku, all to the beauty of fermented tea leaves and their distinctive sharpening effects upon the mind, I realized I’d better report back here.
If I’ve gone on a bit, you can’t blame me. I’m just off to run around the block a few times. Then there’s a tree I’ve been meaning to chop down in the back yard... then... we’ll see what the rest of the evening brings!
If you're not dining with a group getting both salads on one plate #24A is probably the best way to go. That way you can try each, side by side, and see which you prefer.
Incidentally, there was a new item on the menu that my wife talked me into trying. It's one of those insane ideas that actually comes together beautifully.
It's listed on the suplemental menu taped to the tables only...
Vegitarian Pratha Sandwich... It's so very tasty.
Two pieces of ghee drenched Burmese Pratha sluiced thickly with sweet thai peanut sauce (the same sauce that's served with the Satay), stuffed with crisp cucumber, lettuce, and tomato.
This one savory, sweet, spicy item is probably going to haunt me until they put me cold and stiff into the ground. It's far from traditional, but it's the ideal comfort food. I can't recommend it highly enough.