Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mandalay Cafe and Restaurant: Lost Gem Found Again

The country of Burma (Myanmar) borders India on one side and Thailand on the other. It’s interesting to see how these two titans have found common ground in the country of Burma which truly seems to be a culinary segue between the two lands.

Some years ago, Steven and I made a few visits to a College Park, MD restaurant called Mandalay, which featured Malaysian, or more specifically, Burmese cuisine. It was basically a “divey” hole-in-the-wall joint in an off-beat locale but with really good food. Alas, we discovered it too late as the restaurant was slated for demolition, it’s location to be turned into condos or townhouses or something. Furthermore, shortly thereafter we moved to Crofton and soon forgot all about this little gem.

As luck would have it, just the other day Steven eyed a short article in the Washington Post heralding the Ginger Salad at Mandalay in Silver Spring, MD. Eureka! We found them again!

We have a couple of regular dine out nights so this past Monday, when Steven asked me what I was thinking for dinner, I gave him a few ho-hum options then added, “but I would really like to go to Mandalay.” In a flash we were off.

The once “divey” hole-in-the-wall joint, has blossomed into a great big “divey” joint. Let’s just say the place is not long on atmosphere. Not to say anything unpleasant, it’s clean, it’s functional, it’s comfortable, but it’s certainly not going to win any prizes for décor… but with food this good, they could serve it out of the back of a pickup truck at the entrance to a dump and I would line up for it.

We started with the Ginger Salad, which is very similar to a Thai Green Papaya Salad. Shredded cabbage is topped with a spicy lime, fish sauce and peanut dressing with shredded ginger and fried garlic chips. You can ask for this dish “vegetarian” which means they will leave off the fish sauce. You can also ask for it “College Park” style, which means it will be really spicy. Apparently, they got complaints that the salad was too intense so they toned down the ginger. We ordered it “College Park” style and didn’t find it overwhelming at all. In fact it was absolutely addictive. As you sit in Mandalay, you will notice that the Ginger salad goes out to almost every table and I understand why, it is simply delicious.

We also ordered the Burmese Samosas, which are smaller than a traditional Indian Samosa with a thinner and crisper shell. They look like Spanakopita triangles filled with well seasoned mashed potatoes and peas and served with a snappy chili sauce that is slightly sweet and really spicy.

For entrees, I chose Mandalay KyetThar which is served room temperature. It’s described as “White meat chicken strips boiled, and served with lemon-soy, crushed peanuts, and sesame seed sauce”. Sounds pleasant enough… but they forget to mention that it’s spicy. The waitress advised that the sauce could only be served very spicy or moderately spicy. Mild was not an option. I like spicy, but I know better than to order something very spicy until I understand exactly what that means to a specific restaurant or cuisine. Steven ordered the Shrimp in Tomato Onion Curry, also ordered moderately spicy. We decided to split everything.

Thank God we ordered them moderately spicy. Both dishes had that sneaky burn that you don’t notice at first, but which continues to get spicier and spicier the more you eat, until your lips are tingling and your mouth is quite literally on fire. Water won’t help you, the rice is little comfort, and it tastes so damn good that you just keep eating making matters worse.

As an added bonus I unwittingly ordered a small bowl of the AChin Yay “Lemon and garlic with hot chili sauce”.

“It makes things a little hotter” said our lovely waitress.

I didn’t realize that Satan made a hot sauce, but apparently he does. It’s called A Chin Yay, and it comes from Burma. It definitely makes things a little hotter. I put some on the Shrimp Curry and the first bite actually made me cough. I am also smart enough to know not to douse my food with an unknown hot sauce until I have gauged the intensity of what I am about to eat. Needless to say, the AChin Yay was used only sparingly after that.

Despite the intensity of the heat, this is really fantastic food. Everything is fresh and tasty, with simple presentations that highlight the direct flavors of the dish. Service was incredibly attentive and friendly. Our waitress gave us many suggestions and we felt like she helped us to choose wisely.

We both had a dessert. In hind sight I would skip it next time around. Steven ordered the ShweJi “cream of wheat, coconut cream, sugar, raisins, and milk, topped with poppy seeds, then baked until light golden brown” and I ordered the Sticky Rice with brown Sugar & Coconut. Stevens’ dessert was the better of the two, mine having been overheated in a microwave. The ShweJi, however was unique and flavorsome, but I have some sugar free fudge bars at home that I would have liked more.

We are delighted to have found this little gem again, and I have the feeling this will be the first of many visits to Mandalay.

Mandalay Cafe and Restaurant
930 Bonifant Street
Silver Spring, MD 20910

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