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Oct 31, 2012 12:45 PM

Tea Leaf Salad - SF Dish of the Month (Nov 2012)

After a very close vote, the dish of the month for San Francisco for Nov 2012 is Burmese tea leaf salad (lahpet thohk). Here's a link to the voting thread:

The goal is to collectively try as many versions of tea leaf salad as possible during the month of November! So let's start exploring and eating—report back with reviews and photos.

I think this particular dish is exciting since there aren't *too* many places that serve it in the Bay Area. It will be a bit of work, but maybe we can collectively try all of them this month!

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  1. Since there are a limited number of places that serve Tea Leaf Salad, I thought it might be helpful to compile a list of Burmese places. I am pretty sure all of them serve it. Here's my initial list, hopefully others can add to it:

    Burma Superstar (and its various branches) - SF, Oakland, Alameda
    Mingalaba in Burlingame
    Mandalay in SF (Richmond)
    Yamo in SF (Mission)
    Burmese Kitchen in SF (Tenderloin)
    Pagan in SF (Richmond)
    Little Yangon in Daly City
    Saphhire in SF (Financial District)
    Burmese Gourmet (food truck downtown SF)
    Good Luck Yogurt in Newark, CA

    Where else? I'm thinking there are several places in the South Bay/Peninsula that I don't know about

    35 Replies
    1. re: Dave MP

      B Star Bar, SF
      Nan Yang, Oakland
      Donut Delight Oriental Pastries, Union City (weekends only?)
      Burma Cafe, Daly City
      Innya Lake, San Mateo
      Broadway Barista, Redwood City
      Rangoon Ruby, Palo Alto
      Green Elephant Gourmet, Palo Alto
      Sweet Mango, San Jose

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Yes, Donut Delight is weekends only. Here's the two-page menu, plus it has a few more items on Sundays, but no tea leaf salad listed.

        So best to check ahead at any of these if one really wants the tea leaf salad.

        There's the Burmese temple in Half Moon Bay, and perhaps other locations too. Also can buy salad fixings at Haig's . . . or if the manager has finally opened his own place, wherever he is. And what's the word on reopening of the spot in the basement in FiDi?

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          The International Food Center reopened but the Burmese place didn't.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Went to Donut Delight this past Saturday. Got the Mohinga and some fried Red Bean "Cakes". The Mohinga was pretty outstanding. They didn't have the fried chickpeas you usually get and Melanie had a picture of (from them). Instead they added fried zuchini as a topping. They also added a little fish cake as well. I was expecting small portions for the $5 for everything menu... but the stoup was equal in size to most other places I've been.
            Ties with Little Yangon as my favorite Mohinga.

            The Red Bean Cakes were pretty insane. For $5 I received 7 large dense fried discs. I think they had a lot of lemon grass in them. They were nicely spiced, but served with a big side of hot sauce that i had to skip due to my inability to eat spicy food.
            I really thought they had made a mistake when I received 7... but sure enough 5 dollars. no tax. 7 of them.
            on flickr is a pic of the soup and an slightly blurry one of the red bean cake and a scary close-up.

            The place was real busy, both with dimsum customers, donut customers and Burmese folk. I was alone so the proprietor and a customer started chatting me up about Burmese food which made the experience all the more fun.

            A little far from SF to go back too often, but I'll have to at least go back with my wife and or friends to try more things.

            Oh and bonus points for having one of the best Wife Cookies (melon cookie) I've ever had. I've tried maybe a good 2 dozen versions of Wife Cookies. These were extra thick, but had a lot of actual melon pieces inside and were light in density. I hate dense wife cookies. My other favorites being Shen Kee's which are thin and light. These were A LOT less oily. I also got a "honey cookie" but i started getting worried that the brown filling was made using condensed milk which I don't want to be eating for lactose reasons. It was tasty and seemed to have a dash of salt along with the sweetness.

          2. re: Robert Lauriston

            We have Green Elephant's tea leaf salad about once a week, including today. I don't love it, but average tea leaf salad is still good.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Innya Lake is in San Bruno (per the internet) not San Mateo - if there is one in SM please give the address :)

              1. re: estnet

                Sloppy reading on my part, it's on San Mateo Avenue in San Bruno.

            2. re: Dave MP

              I would be very interested in reports saying to what extent the tea salad is mixed with lettuce or other greens. The only place I have been to that I am sure is mostly tea is Mandalay. Yamo and Pagan are OK but half lettuce. I can't remember for sure about Little Yangon, but I think it was a mix, but with a substantial component of tea leaves in it. I believe adding lots of lettuce is not a true Burmese thing.

              1. re: Thomas Nash

                Burmese Kitchen's is mostly tea leaves, and of a higher quality than other places.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Stopped by Burmese Kitchen today after early voting at City Hall...

                  There was a negligible amount of tea leaves in the tea salad. Composition in approximate order by weight: cabbage, peanuts, a fried bean or pea, Thai chile slices, tea leaves.

                  This cabbage salad had nothing to do with a true Burmese tea salad and was by far the least interesting I have had. Not as good as Yamo, even.

                  We ordered a full order of tea salad, not the lunch special.


                  1. re: Thomas Nash

                    bummer, I was hoping it was gonna hit a homerun...
                    Thanks for saving me a trip over there.

                    1. re: Thomas Nash

                      Wow, that sounds like they've gone way downhill.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        It looks a lot like the picture Cynsa posted a day ago. She liked it. It was a fine and interesting cabbage salad, just not much in the way of tea leaves .

                        1. re: Thomas Nash

                          Oddly, I had a fine layer of tea leaves under the shredded cabbage and enough of the lovely sourness of the fermented whole tea leaves, which I prefer to the chopped mash of other versions. But, it was definitely too oily for my liking. Not at all a 'cabbage' salad.

                          1. re: Cynsa

                            No layer today. Just a few leaf shreds, probably countable on fingers of both hands, scattered through the cabbage.

                  2. re: Thomas Nash

                    Here's my photo of Little Yangon's tea leaf salad from three years ago on my first visit and perhaps the only time I've ordered it. I do recall having a discussion with the owner and asking for it without lettuce. As you can see from the photo, it does have a little bit of shredded cabbage mixed in and a leaf of lettuce underneath as a bed. It was made with whole tea leaves rather than the chopped up slurry.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Here's a Chron article which confirms my memory that the addition of cabbage is more an SF adaptation than Burmese - though apparently cabbage may be mixed in in home kitchens:

                      What I do remember as a highlight in Burma is that one day we stopped for a quick snack at a little stall in Pindaya before visiting an amazing Buddhist cave. Our driver ordered something in Burmese and I understood him telling us it was a special local dish. An intense and complex deep green salad, it was stunning. "What is it?" "Tea." "Tea?" "Yes, tea."

                      Frankly, not much else we ate in a month in wonderful Burma was memorable, mostly tamed Thai and Chinese noodles, etc. , but the tea salad was unforgettable. It was the only one we saw and I looked for something similar back home. There was no lettuce or cabbage. We think the tea was fermented and chopped. Closest I have seen so far is Mandalay's version. Sounds like we need to try Burmese Kitchen and other possibilities this thread may turn up.

                      One of the world's more amazing dishes.

                    2. re: Thomas Nash

                      I think a little shredded cabbage for crunch is traditional but adding a lot of cabbage or lettuce as filler is an American thing, maybe because the tea leaves are so expensive here.

                      A Burmese friend told me that they don't eat it as part of a meal but as an afternoon pick-me-up, sort of like coffee.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Burmese Kitchen's Tea Leaf Salad with finely shredded cabbage
                        I think the tea leaves are prepped in oil and this one needed a squeeze of lime to brighten and balance the flavors. I do love the crunch of this version - it's a simple lunch for one with a side of rice and a cup of tea.

                    3. re: Dave MP

                      Remembered another one:

                      Ton Kiang, SF

                      And I checked the online menu for Roe and nothing Burmese currently (and probably hasn't been for a long time).

                      Burma Superstar will be opening on Valencia soon. Otherwise, the number of Burmese places seems to be dwindling, unfortunately.

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        Despite a few places closing, I think the number of Burmese places has been growing steadily. A few years ago there were two, Burma Superstar and Mandalay, now there are at least 20. It's becoming part of the standard mix in upscale restaurant neighborhoods.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          More than a few have closed. I'd say it's a wash. Off the top of my head, here are the ones I'd been to that are no longer with us:

                          By the Bite, SF
                          Irawaddy, SF
                          Yellow Pa Taut, SF
                          Burma House, SF
                          NIrvana, SF
                          Rangoon, Palo Alto
                          Pagan 2, SF
                          Natoma Cafe, SF
                          Yamin Win, Los Altos
                          Roe, SF (still open, but no more Burmese food)

                          Then, I didn't get to these before their demise:
                          Mandalay Noodle, Milpitas
                          Burma Tea Leaf, SF
                          another in Milpitas
                          one in Fremont
                          Phoenix Bistro, Alameda

                          And I'm sure there have been others unknown to us.

                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                            So of maybe 35 that opened, 15 have closed. That's still exponential growth over ten years.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Yes, I've been looking at the glass as half-empty. The ~50% failure rate mirrors that of the general restaurant population.

                            2. re: Melanie Wong

                              I hate to speak ill, but Rangoon in PA was seriously mediocre.
                              I first had Tea Leaf Salad at a place called, I think, Star of Burma which would have been on California or so, near one of those very late night thai restaurants. Closed now.

                            3. re: Robert Lauriston

                              I don't know what you mean by "a few years ago" but Nan Yang has been around since the mid-'80s. Its original (better) location was in Oakland Chinatown, where Chef Lau's is now.

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                Yes Ruth, and RIP to that location of Nan Yang. That was the first Burmese food I ever ate, and a group of friends and I went as often as possible.

                              2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                Innya Lake was in San Bruno ( on San Mateo Ave.) when I lived there 12 years ago, add them to the no lettuce column

                            4. re: Dave MP

                              Another serving Burmese food is T-28 on Taraval in SF, but unknown whether tea leaf salad is available.

                              1. re: Dave MP

                                Noticed it on the menu at Another Monkey (Mission) as well.

                                1. re: OliverB

                                  Good spotting. Here's a link to Another Monkey's dinner menu listing tea leaf salad with a little different mix of ingredients,

                                2. re: Dave MP

                                  I tried to stop by Good Luck Yogurt in Newark to pick up some fermented tea leaves but found that they now have a store Myanmar Pyi Thar in the strip mall on the mall access road (by 24 hour fitness) Unfortunately it wasn't open at 3:45 despite the posted hours of 10-8 and the lit Open sign. It looks promising, though. From the window I could see a cooler with at least 3 sizes of dried shrimp and some greenery I couldn't identify. It is a much larger space than the yogurt shop and even though most of that space is taken up by nic-nacks it looks like there are also more food choices and they are more visible to the customer, rather than at special request behind the counter.

                                  1. re:

                                    I also struck out at Haig's for purchasing tea leaves. There was nobody manning the back counter (which appeared to have teapots only), and I told the guy at the front checkout that I heard on "the internet" that fermented green tea leaves might be sold there, perhaps at the back counter. He told me they don't have them anymore and I should check one of the restaurants in the area. I got a great value Turkish yogurt cheese and some good muhammara, but no tea leaves, or leads as to where the "back guy" may have gone.

                                      1. re: vulber

                                        Has the not-on-Sundays manager said anything more about opening his own place?

                                3. Nan Yang on College Ave in Oakland makes a tea leaf salad without cabbage or other greens. I forgot to take a photo before the server mixed it up, but it's plated with the accompaniments arranged around a central pile of chopped tea leaves. From what I could recognize, it contains tea leaves, fried fava beans, fried yellow split peas, onion slices, peanuts, ground dried shrimp, tomato, fried garlic, slices of some hot green pepper, sesame seeds, and lemon juice. I also tasted a tiny bit of toasted coconut. This is a fairly mild version of the dish. I couldn't taste any fishy elements, and the flavor of the tea leaves kind of got lost amongst all the crunchier components.

                                  I also had the mohinga and the lamb curry at Nan Yang. The mohinga had no fish flavor except in the slices of fish cake, and the lamb was tough. Looking forward to better dishes on the Peninsula and SF ...

                                  I had this dish at Mingalaba and Burma Superstar (Oakland) in October, and preferred both their versions which IIRC had another green in the mix. I'm probably going to be in the minority on this thread, but although I appreciate their contribution to the hodgpodge of flavors in the salad.
                                  I've never been a huge fan of tea leaves themselves,

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: hyperbowler

                                    I agree on Nan Yang. Despite not having other greens to dilute things, the tea leaves are not as strongly flavored as other spots so got lost among the other components.

                                  2. SO love Tea Salad....I've only had it at Mandalay and Burma Superstar and totally prefer Mandalay. I've gone there for decades and the quality has never diminished.

                                    1. Hi, Please understand that I say this with the utmost charity and only a little ill will. I hate all of you deeply, just for being able to have this conversation. Ever since I had the tea leaf salad at Mandalay in June, I have been craving this dish like mad. (but clearly not madly enough to attempt to make it myself, for fear of going to all the effort, and missing out on that je ne sais quoi)

                                      I will, however, be watching this thread to try other offerings of this enchanting dish on my next visit to SF.

                                      Yours in envy,

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: caviar_and_chitlins

                                        I am not offended at all but greatly understand. I have often wondered if I could/should attempt this dish at home but feel like it would not make the mark. I am grateful that I am able to go to Mandalay....and am even going to try another restaurant on the list to verify my opinion of my favorite. 24 hours until tea salad. Oh, sorry.

                                        1. re: melinna

                                          do enjoy your new place, and do report back. Did I mention that I'm really. :)

                                      2. ran across (actually drove past) burmese gourmet at his new outpost at Brother's Kitchen. they share the same menu and kitchen space. soul food, burgers and burmese food all in da same house!

                                        eats: tea leaf salad(7.50)
                                        -mound of greens in center(looked and tasted like lettuce)
                                        also small scoops of toasted almond, peanuts, small nut, tomato, sesame seed, lime,
                                        pesto-looking glob, oils,
                                        -mixed together into a crunchy, green snack.
                                        -only 2nd time for tea leaf salad. unable to compare.

                                        Brothers Kitchen
                                        3000 San Pablo Ave
                                        Oakland, Ca.

                                        20 Replies
                                        1. re: shanghaikid

                                          "pesto-looking glob" sounds like the fermented tea leaves. did you like it?

                                          1. re: drewskiSF

                                            sour and pungent when concentrated. spread over the entire salad, just slightly sour.
                                            not my cup of tea.

                                            1. re: shanghaikid

                                              Looking forward to trying Little Yangon's tea leaf salad next week, woot! I've tried Burmese Kitchen's (several times), Pagan's (once), Burma Superstar (once) and Mandalay (several times). Mandalay is the winner for me so far.

                                              Just for fun, pix of my all-time fave from the only place that serves it in Vancouver. The first is a takeout, unmixed one and the second is plated at the resto. Note that they use cabbage here too FWIW. The Burmese owner recommends a nibble of the chile and a gnaw of the raw garlic clove plus some Jasmine tea and a bowl of rice on the side to complement the experience. I've also heard that this dish is more typically eaten as an afternoon pickmeup in Burma.

                                              1. re: grayelf

                                                Article on Mandalay re introducting tea leaf salad to SF:

                                                A former SF chef is taking the gospel to New York (note the lettuce, and also peanuts -- not a fan of either in TLS, a bit of cabbage and some crispy pulses do it for me):


                                                1. re: grayelf

                                                  Nan Yang opened in Oakland Chinatown in 1983, so I guess it was the first in the area.

                                                  Is the same Philip Chu the chef at Nan Yang, Kirin, and Chu?

                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    Interesting question. articles about Philip Chu of Nan Yang refer to his wife, Nancy. The wife of Philip Chu, owner of Kirin and Chu, is Dana. But the articles are years apart and something could have changed.

                                                    Also, Nan Yang's website says since 1981 but Chu's piece in SF Chronicle says 1983.

                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                      He had a hamburger joint in downtown Oakland before he opened Nan yang in Oakland and opened another place in peidmont. He was an architect by trade.

                                                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                      We had such a delightful meal there! It was lunchtime and we got the last fourtop in the place. The owner's niece had just started working there and she was so charming, helping us understand all the dishes and making perfectly pitched jokes, really sterling service. And the food was outstanding. We had samusa soup, okra curry, paratha and chicken curry, tea leaf salad, pulled tea, an awesome coconut crunchy dessert and a side of sourleaf. Everything was spot on with well balanced flavours, lots of variety and tender meats. To stay on topic, I would have preferred a bit more tea leaf and a bit less cabbage in the laphet thoke but otherwise it was a very worthy specimen. The fried legumes/pulses were particularly noteworthy, as was the lack of peanuts, sunflower or sesame seeds, which I eschew in this particular salad. Since it was not premixed you could also customize a bit.

                                                      1. re: grayelf

                                                        So glad you liked it after my pushing it so hard for years! Hope you felt it was worth trekking five blocks outside the San Francisco border to the wilds of Daly City. :-J

                                                        Still using whole tea leaves and young shoots at Little Yangon?

                                                        1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                          It was absolutely worth what turned out to be a very short trip from NOPA. I'd consider going by BART again it was that good, and the BART station looked to be relatively close. Here's a pic so you can judge for yourself re the tea leaves. In looking at the photo it appears there were a few red skinned peanuts (unless they were soy beans???) but they were not overpowering.

                                                          Can't believe I forgot to mention one of the top dishes of the day, the pickled shrimp salad. We all loved it but was the fave of the SO. Springy shrimp bits in an umami-rich acid base with lots of red onions and cilantro, plus lots of raw sliced garlic you could add to taste. Wish I had some for brunch right now! In addition we had a deep fried tofu which rivaled Dennis' at Burmese Kitchen, my heretofore favourite, partly because of the sauce. So complex and satisfying.

                                                          BTW the name of that delicious dessert is Moh Se Kyaw and it is made with rice flour so suitable for GF types. We also had a lovely salted lime drink that would be especially great on a hot summer day.

                                                          $80 before tip for this feast was a steal. I'll be back.

                                                          1. re: grayelf

                                                            Would love to see a photo of the tea leaf salad as well as the pickled shrimp salad. My third visit to Little Yangon was a disappointment due to a shrimp salad of some sort, and some other issues, so I'd like to see how yours looks.

                                                            1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                              Oops forgot to add the pic of the laphet thoke, and I'll throw in one of the shrimp too.

                                                              1. re: grayelf

                                                                Thanks, those look like whole tea leaves to me. Maybe a little smaller with fewer juicy stems than at Rangoon Ruby, nice looking plate. And the shrimp salad is a whole different thing than the dish I'd had a couple years ago, so I wouldn't hesitate to order it at all. Those slices of raw garlic cloves look potent!

                                                  2. re: drewskiSF

                                                    The tea leaf from the Burmese side of the menu at Brother's Kitchen is fermented. I had it today and it was heavenly. According to chef William, the tea is from Burma, then the tastiest portions are selected, garlic and other spices are added along with vegetable oil with the option of peanut oil or animal fat. The blend is then fermented for about a week. Earthy, with some chew from that part of the the leaf still intact. More details to follow.

                                                    1. re: zippo

                                                      here's a very rough cut of a slideshow with photos of the tea salad and other dishes at Brother's Kitchen as well as pictures of the neighborhood. The slideshow badly needs heavy editing and captions along with a narrative but might not get to it for a day or two:

                                                      The people who run it work together through a community church nearby at San Pablo Av and 34th St.

                                                      1. re: zippo

                                                        very nice slideshow. wasn't burmese goumet's food truck in the parking lot when you were there? william told me the truck was his.

                                                        1. re: shanghaikid

                                                          yeah, there was a pink truck in the lot without any signage on it that i think that he said was his. william also said that he had participated in the bites on broadway food truck events held near oakland tech near broadway and 43rd or 45th st. i'm not sure whether the bites events are still going on. brother's kitchen may have some plans to try and get some food trucks in their lot at 3000 san pablo on fridays. i thought that all the food i had at brother's was terrific.

                                                          1. re: zippo

                                                            season's over for bites off broadway this year. strange, never saw burmese gourmet listed at a vendor at bites. i check almost every week.
                                                            i'm thinking of a po boy about the great food. this spot has been thru many occupants the last few years.