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Chowdown at Larkin Express Deli / Burmese Kitchen

Nine chowhounds met tonight at Burmese Kitchen (formerly Larkin Express Deli) for Burmese comfort food and good company. Our selections included:

A1. La Pat Dok – Tea Leaf Salad
A7. Tamarind Leaf Salad
A9. Samusas Soup
A12. Fried Golden Tofu
A13. Roti & Potato Curry
N1. Moh Hinga
S5. Rainbow Salad
M12. Pork with Pickled Mango
M13. Sauerkraut Pork
M23. Prawns & Pumpkin
M24. Prawn & Sour Leaf
M27. Dried Shrimp Paste

Biryani Rice
Coconut Rice

Young Coconut Gelatin
Rich Semolina Cake
Tapioca with Coconut Milk

The menu with further description of the dishes may be found at: http://www.burmesekitchen.com/Menu.html

I was especially looking forward to the tea leaf salad and samusas soup, both of which had received praise on this board.

My first three tastes were the tea leaf salad, tamarind salad, and rainbow salad. The tea leaf salad was nice and crunchy but didn’t impress me. The tamarind salad had more punch to it—it was very sour. I preferred the rainbow salad, which had just the right balance of noodles and vegetables.

The fried golden tofu was very nice, with an excellent texture. I enjoyed the roti & potato curry but they were pretty standard stuff.

I was expecting something more intense from the mohinga soup. It was fairly plain without much fish taste. The samusas soup had a very nice spicy aftertaste and tingle that stayed with me.

I didn’t get enough of the prawns & pumpkin to form an opinion but no one else seemed impressed with it.

The standout for me was the prawn and sour leaf which had complexity and a nice tang. The pork with pickled mango was also very good—the dried mango made the dish but its flavors don’t much permeate the sauce. My first bites didn’t include any mango and didn’t excite me, then I hit the jackpot with my first dried mango bite. I also liked the sauerkraut pork.

The young coconut gelatin was very refreshing. I liked the semolina cake but it might be too sweet for some.

We had plenty of food for $170 pre-tip. Thank you, Otis for organizing the event.

Larkin Express Burmese Kitchen
452 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102

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  1. Great Burmese food at a great price!
    First two pics - satisfied chowhounds. What a fun group! Glad we were able to do this - thanks Otis!
    Pic 3: the Tealeaf salad
    Pic 4: Tamarind salad (mmm).

    Larkin Express Burmese Kitchen
    452 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102

    3 Replies
    1. re: mitch119

      Pictures are left to right...
      Pic 5: Moh Hinga Soup (fish chowder - excellent!)
      Pic 6: Fried Golden Tofu (this was mind-blowingly good)
      Pic 7: Rainbow Salad
      Pic 8: Samusas Soup

      1. re: mitch119

        More pictures!
        Pic 10: Coconut rice
        Pic 11: Prawns and Sour Leaf
        Pic 12: Prawns and Pumpkin

        1. re: mitch119

          And even more pictures...
          Pic 13: Roti (with green potato curry; roti was warm, flaky, oily and delicious)
          Pic 14: Sauerkraut Pork (this was good)
          Pic 15: Pork with Pickled Mango (but this was even better - my favorite!)
          Pic 16: Dried Shrimp Paste condiment (what wouldn't this taste good on?)

    2. Thanks charliemyboy for the detailed documentation and mitch119 for the equally detailed photo record!! My favorites were the strongly flavored items: the shrimp with sour leaf, the dried shrimp condiment and the pork with pickled mango (which was like bits from a jar of Indian pickle spooned into the dish...I have some Palat brand in my rerig right now and it would be easy neough to try this at home). The fried tofu would have been a star in any cuisine: crispy crackly on the outside, custard-y in the middle, who wouldn't like that?

      Many of the other dishes were overly mild for my taste and I recall stronger spicing back in the Deli days. (They used to make two tea leaf salads: the "traditional" one being served now and a stronger, tarter version. They have discontinued the second, which I preferred.) The samusa soup especially is a paradox because the flavors are complex yet subtle and hard to focus on in the context of a big meal. I'd go back and try just that by itself and work on the samusa till it's gone.

      By the way, the service was great and host Dennis was very accommodating... as was an anonymous customer (also the house artist, who shared his portfolio) who jumped in to help. Thanks to all!

      1. Thanks Otis for putting this together! This was my first Chowdown and I had a great time eating good food and meeting some great people. Now on to my review....

        Of the three salads (tea leaf, rainbow, and tamarind), the tamarind was my favorite. The tea leaf lacked the "tea-like" qualities I was hoping for that are featured more heavily in the tea leaf salads at BSS and Manadalay. The rainbow salad was a little underwhelming. While the texture was great, it lacked a certain bite. The tamarind salad was very interesting, with a nice sweet and sour flavor.

        Of the the two soups we had, the moh hinga was by far my favorite (and quite possibly my favorite dish of the evening.) It was deep, flavorful, and complex. I loved the texture contrast between the soft noodles and the crunch of a tempura like item. I didn't enjoy the samusa soup much. It lacked salt and depth and while I got chunks of falafal, I never got a bit of any samusas.

        Of the main dishes, the pickled mango pork was my favorite. It reminded me of an Indian condiment that we used to eat growing up, but instead of a lot of veggies and fruit, there were chunks of pork. The saurkraut pork was also very interesting with some nice sour notes. The prawns with sour leaf salad was just a bit too sour for me. While I liked my first bite, my it wore on my taste buds a bit after my second bite.

        Overall, for the price, great meal. I still prefer the flavors of BSS and Mandalay, but for the price, Larkin Express is a great bargain

        1. Your complaints about the mohinga and tea leaf salad mirror my experiences at Larkin Express. I also enjoy the sour vegetable with prawn at Larkin Express, but I'm not sure it is better than either of Pagan's two locations, where I like the tea leaf salad better and have generally tastier more well-rounded meals.

          Maybe it's time for a chowdown series including Pagan and the new place in Daly City/South San Francisco.

          2 Replies
          1. re: SteveG

            The new place in Daly City/South San Francisco is Little Yangoon. Loved it the two times we've been. They have an application posted for a beer/wine permit

            1. re: SteveG

              Burmese Kitchen stockpiles sour vegetable during the season and freezes it for use during the winter. I agree that the version here can't touch what I've had at Pagan in the Outer Richmond. The shrimp were kind of mealy. The dish was out of balance because it didn't have enough fish sauce, garlic and chile to balance the sourness. Adding some of the balachaung helped but I shouldn't have had to do that it.

              We have had sort of a Burmese series, and chowed down at Pagan's original location last fall. We have not had a group at Mandalay yet, and I would nudge those who mentioned it favorably to consider hosting one sometime. I had lunch at Little Yangon again last week and now having returned to Burmese Ktichen can say that Little Yangon surpasses it easily.

              Edited to add:
              The Burmese chowdowns I can recall off the top of my head:
              Yellow Pa Taut
              B Star Bar
              Burma Super Star (SF)
              Innya Lake
              Pagan (Outer Richmond)

            2. Chiming in here, first off, thanks again to Otis for organizing. This was my first chowdown, had some great food and company, and definitely look forward to doing this again!

              On to the food -

              La Pat Dok – Tea Leaf Salad
              I usually love tea leaf salad, and I was pretty disappointed by this rendition. For me, it lacked the "funkiness" that I enjoy in other versions of this salad. Perhaps there wasn't enough tea leaves, perhaps it wasn't fermented enough. It was tasty enough, it just wasn't what I expected here.

              Tamarind Leaf Salad
              This was something I've never had before. While this one was definitely more bold in flavor than the tea leaf salad, I don't think I was a huge fan. Something about the flavors didn't come together for me.

              Rainbow Salad
              I've never been a huge fan of rainbow salad at other Burmese places I've been. That said, this was definitely one of the better versions I've had. It was a little bland / underseasoned, but I still enjoyed it.

              This was one of my standouts for the meal. Great, deep flavor, satisfying and filling, this is something I'd definitely return for.

              Samusa Soup
              To echo another review here, I think this one got a little lost in the meal. It was underwhelming, and just didn't stand up flavor-wise to the other dishes we had. I failed to notice any samusas in the soup (or perhaps they had broken apart by the time I got to it).

              Fried Golden Tofu
              This was also very tasty. The menu said this was a housemade tofu made with yellow split pea - you definitely got that yellow split flavor here. Crispy, ungreasy, flavorful.

              Roti & Potato Curry
              Pretty standard, didn't make much of an impact on me.

              Pork with Pickled Mango
              This was one of my favorite dishes at the meal, something pretty unexpected. The pickled mango was very reminiscent of the pickled mango you get as a condiment at indian meals (achaar), but instead here forming the base of sauce for the pork. The pork, while slightly dry / overcooked, melded nicely with the tartness of the mango.

              Sauerkraut Pork
              Another interesting dish. I made the comment at the meal that, if I was served this dish without any context, I couldn't have told you what culture if came from. Each bite started with flavors that fit an Indian profile, but finished with a suprising sourness from the sauerkraut.

              Prawns & Pumpkin
              Nothing here really stood out, pretty standard version.

              Prawn & Sour Leaf
              I liked the flavors of the sour vegetables (not sure exactly what they were). The prawns themselves were unimportant to the dish - a little textural cand taste contrast, but the focus here was undoubtedly on the vegetables.

              Young Coconut Gelatin
              I had expected coconut flavored gelatin. Instead, in addition, there were ribbons of soft young coconut draped over the dish. A nice, refreshing way to finish the meal.

              Rich Semolina Cake
              Pretty standard, a bit too sweet for me.

              Tapioca with Coconut Milk
              A warm soup, tasty enough, didn't really jump out at me.

              All in all, a good meal, with a few standout dishes lingering in my memory. Overall, I think I still prefer Mandalay for my Burmese fix, at least in the city. Still, while not a destination-worthy restaurant, given the reasonable prices and the uniqueness of some of the dishes, I'll definitely return if in the area!

              1. I neglected to mention drinks in my original post-- Melanie brought a bottle of 2002 Schloss Wallhausen Riesling which was just the right sweetness and match for the food we were eating. They don't offer any Burmese or other SE Asian beers but but we were able to stay on the same continent by drinking Tsingtao.

                1 Reply
                1. re: charliemyboy

                  That was a Kabinett Riesling from the Nahe, and showed quite well for us. The owner was generous to not charge us corkage, he said because we were a big group. Also, the restaurant has $2 beers from 4-6pm and we got our drink order in just in time to take advantage of the discount.

                2. Let me add my thanks to Otis for organizing the meal. My impressions pretty much tally with those of Otis - the stronger (sour/sharp) flavored dishes made the biggest impression. The pork with pickled mango had chunks of pork and a few large pieces (3x3 cm) of pickled mango. Unless you got a piece of the pickle, the contribution of the mango was minor. The pickle itself reminded me of my period of addiction to Indian lime pickle.

                  It's worth noting that the little fried tofu appetizers were simple, but really good. For me, the key was that the yellow tofu inside was very creamy, so there was a big contrast between crispy fried exterior and creamy interior. They were thin enough that the proportion of crunchy exterior to soft interior was just right.

                  1. Looks like I’m bringing up the rear here, but I guess better late than never.

                    I’ve had an absence of more than a year from this little spot. Business has picked up and with it, unfortunately, the dumbing down of the dishes to be more mainstream. Like Otis, I noted that the seasonings were not nearly as interesting as earlier visits and some of the dishes were just plain ho-hum. The tip-off to me of what was to come was when I asked the owner whether we would need to order balachaung (dried shrimp, hot chili and garlic condiment) as an extra item since it should be included in dishes where appropriate. My heart sank when he answered me that it was better to have it separately to be added because not everyone likes the spice. And even when I said that everyone in our party wanted the real Burmese flavor, he still insisted that it was better to have it on the side. And soon, we would be reaching for the balachaung to pump up the flavors. Still it’s not the same to just sprinkle it on vs. heating it in the cooking oil.

                    That said, the mohinga here is the best I’ve had. The crunchy yellow peas, depth of flavor, and porridge-y thickness were spot-on. The pork with pickled mango and the fried tofu were also my first taste of them here, and they both delighted.

                    Our group split on the samusa soup. At the table, I found it rather bland and not that interesting. But I reheated the leftovers the next day and had a new found appreciation for the subtle complexity. Some black pepper spice came forward lending a warming heat in the finish. I can’t say that I prefer this version to Burma Super Star’s, they’re very different from each other.

                    I also liked the three desserts quite a bit, and they’re a bargain. The tapioca pearl was too soft, but still enjoyable in the coconut milk.

                    Many thanks, Otis, for pulling this together. As always, a pleasure to chow with the 'hounds.

                    * * * *
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                    1. WE hit Burmese Kitchen for a family meal after the Chinese New Year Parade.

                      The owner/host was fantastic in guiding us with allergies. They were very sweet with our 3 kids, and man that water was NEVER empty... Doting service - may be too much for some, but homey and sincere.

                      We tried:

                      Ginger salad
                      Pork with pickled mango
                      Fish with tamarind
                      Beef with lemongrass
                      Coconut rice
                      Coconut tapioca and young coconut gelatin

                      Ginger salad was fantastic. By far my favorite dish of the evening. Lots of flavors and textural contrasts. Yumm - even better with added fish sauce and chili
                      I really enjoyed the fish, not as sour as a would have hoped, but well cooked fish with a nice savory barely spicey sauce. They might have toned down the spice because of my kids though. Pork was next favorite, but one son didn't like the pickled mango. Not a super strong flavor, but he caught it. Beef was savory and nice and tender, but not as lemongrassey as one would think.

                      Desserts were liked by those that tried them - not sweet and refreshing. They preferred the tapioca to the jelly.

                      OVerall, if I lived in the neighborhood I would probably be there often. The beef especially was pretty greasy, and I can't help but feel that the Burmese flavors were dumbed down. But it was a nice meal, and certainly nice people.

                      1. I lived and worked (in the hotel business) in Rangoon for two years in the early 90s. At that time there was really only one "Burmese" restaurant in the city, called "Hla" ("come" as in "come and eat") located just west of Shwedagon Pagoda. It was a small homey place where you ate with your hands and there were just a couple of tables.

                        Burmese food is what people ate at home; when they went out they wanted either Chinese or Indian (though later a Thai place did open up). Later the Inya Lake Hotel, where I lived and which we managed) did start to serve a Burmese menu but the food remained mostly home cooking.

                        Here in the City we have several well known restaurants claiming to offer Burmese food, most notably Burma Superstar on Clement, Rangoon on California, and (at a very different end of the fancy spectrum, Yamo in the Mission on 18th. The former two are really Chinese-Burmese restaurants (though Superstar was once mostly Burmese), while Yamo serves a bbq-based menu that bares little resemblance to anything I remember from Rangoon, though it ain't bad and it sure is cheap.

                        I don't go to Rangoon Restaurant anymore because it is pretty undistinquished on any level, but I do like the menu at Superstar, as long as you get there early and don't have to wait.

                        But for the last year or so Burmese Kitchen on Larkin at Turk (where I ate last might) pretty much recreates has been recreating Burmese home cooking in a restaurant setting here in San Francisco, and with all these other folks, I highly recommend it. The tea leaf salad (which in the Burmese context is actually not intended as an appetizer at all, but rather is eaten as a digestive, and is never mixed together but served in a special laquer box which keeps all the ingredients separate so you can combine the bits you want in a small spoon...) was very tasty, and as some here have said, even better than that at either Burma Superstar or Rangoon).

                        The pork "curry" (not at all like the Indian version) was as good as any I had in Burma (though the quality of the pork - and fish - there was much better than here, while the chicken, unfortunately, could be guaranteed to have a thousand flying miles on it, and the law forbade slaughtering any but the most aged water buffalo...).

                        A very homely and VERY tasty dish was the "Yellow Peas and Onions" and the "Coconut Chicken Noodle Soup" (actually a Karen rather than Burmese dish) was delicious though not as rich as I have had.

                        I know the setting is rather down-market (in fact you have to pay attention because the signage may lead you to think that the actual restaurant is closed as you walk past the door itself), but I really can't understand why this place is not full all the time. The food is authentic, excellent, and cheap, and Dennis, the proprietor, and his wait staff have the guest's interests at heart.

                        Try it; you'll like it.

                        3406 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94110

                        Burma Superstar
                        4721 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA