By Anne McMullin
When Mandalay restaurant opened in the Inner Richmond in 1984, it was the first and only Burmese restaurant in the Bay Area. People were very unfamiliar with the unique flavors of this Southeast Asian cuisine and some evenings there were fewer than 10 patrons.
In 2003, Sherry Dung and her husband Kevin bought the restaurant at California Street and Sixth Avenue from her aunt and uncle. Today, the once-struggling restaurant is a bustling neighborhood institution.
The route from Burma to San Francisco restaurant owner was not something Dung said she ever planned or imagined. She was a physics student at Rangoon University in Burma in 1988 when political events abruptly sent her life in an unexpected direction. After pro-democracy student protests, the military abruptly closed the prestigious university for a number of years, forcing her to rethink her future. She moved to Taiwan to study Mandarin for a few years, before moving to the Bay Area in 1998 to work at Mandalay with her relatives.
Dung, who learned to cook in her mother’s kitchen, enjoyed bringing her creative touch to all aspects of the restaurant, from the food presentation to the decor. Mandalay’s exterior is painted a cheery bright yellow. Inside, the eclectic décor includes holiday ornaments hanging from the ceiling, a plastic palm tree with lights and Burmese tapestries on the walls.
Dung likes educating patrons about her country’s cuisine and explains that Burmese food has so many unique and complex flavors because it draws from the cuisine of the bordering countries, especially India, China and Thailand. In addition, the country has more than 135 ethnic minorities, all with their own distinct cuisine.
Burmese dishes are very labor intensive to prepare, Mandalay’s Rainbow Salad alone has 22 different fresh ingredients. Dung says the work requires a kitchen staff of 11 every day. Many are long-term employees, like chef Lin, who has been at the restaurant for more than 25 years.
One of the most popular dishes on the menu is the Tea Leaf Salad, which features fermented tea leaves that Dung’s friends and family bring from Burma. She said that at one time only royalty ate this salad during special occasions. Today, it is practically a national dish. In addition to the fermented tea leaves, the salad includes fried garlic, dried shrimp, toasted sesame seeds, lentil seeds, lemon, green pepper and roasted peanuts.
Other popular dishes include fish chowder soup; mango chicken; balada, a crispy Burmese pancake; and their special Mandalay noodles. They serve beer and wine, as well as some specialty drinks like their fragrant tea with a flowering jasmine blossom.
Both Dung and her husband point to the importance of maintaining consistently high standards as a key to success. Dung returns to her native country every year to talk to friends about new food trends and to check out local restaurants. With an eye to keeping things fresh and exciting, she travels to different regions to get ideas for new dishes she can add to the menu at Mandalay.
Dung said she loves their Richmond District neighborhood and wants her customers to step through the door and “feel like they have walked into our home.” She has known some of her customers for decades and knows their preferences so well that she can order for them from memory.
Patrons Mary and Mike Bloomfield exemplify many of their clientele. They live a few blocks away and have been coming to Mandalay since Mary was pregnant with her first child 32 years ago.
“I come here all the time, with friends, family and business associates, because the food is delicious,” she said.
Mandalay is closed on Tuesdays, but open every other day for lunch and dinner. They take dinner reservations for parties of five or more. The restaurant can cater corporate events and special occasions.
Mandalay is located at 4348 California St. at Sixth Avenue. Phone: (415) 386-3895. For menus and more information, visit http://www.mandalaysf.com.