When pressed, Sherry Dung will admit that when her family opened Mandalay in 1984, the tea salad was a bit of a hard sell.
"We had to explain to customers that Burmese food was a combination of Indian, Chinese and Thai flavors," she says, "but with a unique preparation in our own style."
The city got the memo. While Burmese restaurants are rare elsewhere in the country, here we've embraced tea salad and coconut-curry noodles. Equally remarkable: The 28-year-old Mandalay, now encrusted with knickknacks and Christmas ornaments, has not settled into a customer-pleasing rut.
Sure, the menu is larded with Chinese-American stir-fries. But Mandalay's tea salad ($9), with its confluence of bitter, nutty and toasted-garlic notes, is one of the few in town that eschews flavor-diluting lettuce.
The kaw soi dok ($8.50), noodles with shredded cucumbers, fried onion and a tamarind dressing, is a riotous dish, and Mandalay's balada ($6.50), a multilayered flatbread that you tear apart to dunk in a dense curry sauce, is impossible to resist.
And the moo hing nga ($9), a turmeric-yellow chowder with shredded catfish, fried lentils, and the subtle influence of lemongrass and ginger, is striking and soothing in alternating bites.
This is San Francisco comfort food.
Mandalay, 4348 California St. (at Sixth Ave.); 415-386-3895