I live in the east 40s in Manhattan, and I’ve always pretty much assumed that NYC’s (expensive, whitewashed) Upper East Side is a barren wasteland when it comes to cheap, good ethnic food. I’m sure that the UES has more than its share of great old-school European places, but I thought that I’d be pretty screwed if I ever tried to search the UES for, say, inexpensive treats from Africa or Latin America or small countries in Southeast Asia.
So I was pretty shocked when I realized that there’s an insanely great Burmese restaurant up there called Cafe Mingala. I’m just getting warmed up with this blog, but it’s right up there with Joya and Opa Opa and The Islands as one of the best restaurants I’ve visited so far in New York.
I was spoiled by great Burmese food in San Francisco (tiny Yamo in the Mission District and the legendary Burma Superstar on Clement), so I pretty much knew exactly what I wanted when I walked into Café Mingala. We started with the tea leaf salad ($8.95), a Burmese classic with lettuce, tomatoes, flecks of roasted garlic, peanuts, toasted split chickpeas, and marinated tea leaves. It’s about as intense as a salad can get without being unhealthy or slightly disgusting, and I mean that in the best possible way.
If you’ve never tried it, it’s tricky to describe the flavor of marinated tea leaves. Imagine what would happen if cilantro, parsley, arugula, and pickles had a baby, and you might be close. The salad is a small plate of food, but it’s shockingly dense–we were already starting to feel vaguely full after splitting the salad… and that’s not something I usually say.
Not that the salad stopped us from knocking down a pair of entrees. Before going to Cafe Mingala, I googled “Burmese national dish,” just to see if I would learn something. To my surprise, there were pages of different sites, all of which named mohinga as the national dish of Burma/Myanmar.
I fell madly in love with the stuff. Mohinga ($9.95) is a fish stew with vermicelli, garlic, and some sort of thickening agent, usually rice flour. It’s served with a garnish of fried onions, more toasted split chickpeas, cilantro, lemon slices, and hot peppers. It’s a beast of a stew, and I could very happily eat it over and over for weeks at a time without getting tired of it.
Our other entree, classic myanmar phet-htoke ($13.95) consisted of pork and shrimp dumplings (a close relative of standard Chinese pot stickers) stir-fried with basil, broccoli, and snap peas. The quality of everything was outstanding–the vegetables were fresh and pleasantly undercooked, and the dumplings were perfectly solid.
But as soon as we walked out the door, we could barely remember eating the phet-htoke, since we were still babbling incoherently about how great the mohinga was. Get your ass in there and suck down a bowl of it before the Upper East Side decides that it’s too uptight to handle the awesomeness of great Burmese food.
1393b 2nd Ave., Manhattan
Subway: 68th Street station (6 train)