Sunday, April 6, 2008

Mingala Burmese in the East Village

It wasn't till I made a post searching for new places serving Khao Soi on chowhound that I realized I'd been overlooking my favorite (only?) Burmese restaurant in New York, Mingala. Of course! I should have known that given the origins of the spices from Myanamar and the name 'khao soi' from the Burmese 'kow suer' for 'fold-pull', referring to the action of pulling the noodles integral to the dish (and not “to enter the lane” or 'big mountain' as many have attempted to interpret the name as Thai words), that this place must serve it. I'd been going to Mingala for years for their great green tea salad, made from the hard-to-find-in-NYC fermented green tea leaves. Don't let me get started on this extremely addictive dish, which I could start another whole blog on if there weren't so few Burmese restaurants in NY. I got my friends in San Francisco hooked on this dish from Burma Super Star and they would curse me as they would dream about this dish after having it and practically sleep walk to the restaurant to get it in the days before ambien and the sleep snacking epidemic. Actually you might need some sleeping aids after having the green tea salad since it packs some serious caffeine as your basically eating whole tea leaves which have more caffeine by weight than coffee beans even though when brewed coffee has more caffeine extracted. But I would advocate a nice herbal brew of catnip, hops, passion flower, valerian, chamomile, and skullcap to help fall asleep blissfully instead of pills, as long as you can wrest the catnip from your cats!

I don't know how I'd overlooked this noodle dish on Mingala's menu so long, but then when I check on the advice from chowhounder GingerSpice, yep, there it was: Swe Taung Kow Swear room temperature egg noodles, chicken cabbage, coconut milk, onion, coriander, twist of lemon and crispy noodle on top, a perfect description of Khao Soi if I'd just bothered to read it. I coaxed my friends Becca, Cassie, and Robert into going there without mentioning the Khao Soi, though it was easy since Cassie and Robert, both visiting from out of town, were recovered green tea salad addicts from SF and Burma Super Star, and I swear that whenever Robert visits NY a few times a year, he only goes to Mingala, and no other restaurants. Cassie will hopefully become my Chicago Khao soi correspondent if she can make it to the other side of the city for it.

Maybe since it was getting late and we didn't want to be kept up all night, we didn't order the green tea salad for once. Instead we ordered in addition to the Kow swear some thousand layer bread, tamin let-thoke (cold rice noodle salad), and some other tamarind thoke salad, the last two of which we couldn't tell apart at all aside from one having more rice and the other more noodles. I was bit disappointed with these other dishes this time around at Mingala, being nothing in comparison to the Rangoon night market noodles, Basil Soybean, and Mango vegetables that I usually get. I'm not sure whether it was an off night there or if it was those dishes. Both were pretty bland and needed a good amount of hot sauce to spice them up.

The Kow Swear was totally different from the Thai version I'm used to, but as this is the first Burmese version I've had of it, it's hard to know if that's just Mingala's version of it or the Burmese always prepare it like that. It had a few of the toppings I love like the fried shallots and mung beans, but lacked much curry and sourness from the lime and pickled mustard greens, again needing hot sauce to enliven the dish. Perhaps if we'd asked for some lime to squeeze over it, this would've helped, but otherwise just a novelty to order if you want to try the full gamut of Khao soi. Now I just have to find the Lao version of it. Too bad the only Lao restaurant I can find in NYC has its menu solely in Chinese, so I may just have to go hang out there all day and night till someone orders something remotely Khao-soi-looking so I can point at it!

Definitely check out Mingala for their other dishes, but don't make the Kow swear the first or only dish you order. Unfortunately, the other Upper East Side branch of Mingala does not serve the Kow Suer.

Mingala Burmese
21 E 7th St
New York‎ NY‎ 10003
(212) 529-3656
between 2nd and 3rd ave.


Postmoderna76 said...

Hi! I think I'm bookmarking your blog! I stumbled on it after typing in the key word "recipe for Burmese tamin thoke" which I've been craving.

I'm Burmese and I frequent Cafe Mingala in the UES and in the East Village on an embarassingly routine basis. Their room temperature Mandalay Night noodles are good--so is the tofu salad.
For Burmese who specify, they make it "Burmese-style," which means alot more chilli and fish sauce.
Otherwise they tone dishes down to a blander palate to appease all types of western eaters.

Still, they aren't the best representation of the sort of down home Burmese food I eat at my mother's or any other Burmese kitchen--which contains all the deliciously pungent, spicy, and sour elements you seem to crave!

But being in NYC means one can't trek to the burbs to Casa de mama and demand an elderly woman to get to the kitchen and cook up a feast of different "thokes." In burmese "kow swe" means noodles and "thoke" is either salad or "to mix together."
On the tea leaf salad at Cafe Mingala--that's nothing in terms of caffeine perks.

In Burmese homes, they use about 60% pickled tea leaves and 40% of the peas, nuts, and cabbage (my mother uses tomatoes and lots of finely chopped Thai green chilli along with dried shrimp grinded up in a food processor--and lime juice). You see mostly all green rather than the reverse at restaurants. It's because Burmese tea leaf is hard to find.

You can actually google it online and buy ready-to-mix sets from a guy who sells it in Queens.

If you're on the quest for good Khao Swe--other venues to check out are SE Asian community events like Thai water festivals. The Burmese water festival just passed this weekend and there was an array of noodles, fried, in "thoke" form, hot, cold, etc. at the Burmese community's water festival mini shin dig, made by armies of church and temple moms.

You should check out Zabb City (244 east 13th Street). It's Thai but super authentic. They don't scrimp on the spice or fish sauce and people with tame taste buds tend to turn beet red from their noodles and curries.

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Unknown said...

i just stumbled on this blog and wanted to point out that the Chiang Mai 'Khao Soi' is actually in fact a Burmese dish that you can find all over Burma. the word Khao Soi in Thai language does not actually make any sense as it was derived from the Burmese name 'Oun-Noe Khaut-Swe' - 'coconut milk noodle'. but i have been to chiang mai and i must say that the Thais DO make a better dish of it. Khao Soi just taste so much better in Chiang Mai.
you can also find other versions of coconut milk noodles in peninsular south east asia. it is called 'Laksa' in Malaysia and Singapore, though they prepare it differently using seafood and chilli paste.