I’d make a lousy restaurant reviewer. Here’s why: When I go out to eat I often choose the same dishes I know and love at a favorite eatery. If I’m trying a new (to me) joint, I’ll opt for recommendations from friends or scan reviews before hitting the dining spot to find the best picks off the menu.
Recent case in point: When I check out Burma Superstar in Oakland’s restaurant row in the Temescal neighborhood, a clone of its wildly popular cousins with the same name in San Francisco and Alameda, I simply follow the advice of my lunch companions, who both utter just three words: Tea Leaf Salad.
I’m not a complete sheep. The menu notes that the Tea Leaf Salad is a customers’ favorite AND featured on the Food Network, no less. Hard to argue with such cred.
The salad promptly arrives and arranged aesthetically around the plate are little groupings of ingredients, including fried garlic, peanuts, sunflower seeds, dried chickpeas, tomato, romaine lettuce and dried shrimp (vegetarian option available). Smack dab in the middle is a wet mound of black and green Burmese tea. The obliging waiter tosses the salad tableside, finishing it with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
It doesn’t disappoint. As advertised, it’s an intriguing mix of salt, sweet, crunch, crisp, dried, fresh, all infused with the faint taste of steeped tea. I could eat nothing else and feel completely sated.
In the name of research I also sample the platha and dip appetizer. Platha is a multi-layered bread that’s almost like a pastry, with just the right amount of oil and flakiness to qualify as comfort food when dipped into a little bowl of coconut chicken curry sauce.
For the uninitiated, food from this southeast Asian country (now known as Myanmar) includes Thai, Indian, and Chinese influences; it’s neither too sweet nor too spicy for most palates. At the restaurant, sticklers for authenticity will immediately spot concessions to Cal cuisine to keep the locals happy (hello chopped romaine); most diners just dig in.
On subsequent visits to the busy, bustling spot, which doesn’t take reservations (insider tip: go early), I introduce a few new devotees to THE salad as well. It’s practically got a cult following. Maybe even its own Facebook page. I venture out a little. Also good is the Rainbow Salad, which boasts 22 ingredients, including noodles, green papaya, tofu, and most notably, tamarind sauce. The Mango Salad with pickled mangos, cabbage, and cucumbers is refreshing and pairs nicely with the bar’s signature muddled and minty mojitos.
Forays into the hot dishes are less successful. Chicken with Fresh Basil is serviceable but not stunning, Egg Curry with Okra simply doesn’t work. On one visit my fellow diners rave about Bun Tay Kauser (flour noodles, chicken curry coconut sauce, split yellow peas, eggs, and cabbage). I’m less wowed by the combo, though masala adds a welcome spicy undertone. I know it sounds good but for me the different elements just don’t hang together. On the other hand, you can’t go wrong with the aromatic Coconut Rice.
I guess that makes me a somewhat unadventurous restaurant goer — and, thus, the gal least likely to get the reviewer gig. My standard order at Burma Superstar (no surprises here): Tea Leaf Salad. Platha & Dip. Coconut Rice. I’m reading Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, an amusing account of her days dining out in disguises for the New York Times, and like most epicureans she seems game to try anything. The book got me thinking about what kind of strategy people bring to the table when they go out for a meal.
So, dear readers, when you eat in a restaurant are you a play-it-safe diner or a go-for-it gourmand? Do tell.