I’ve known Mandalay Restaurant for many years, even before its formal existence. After my college days, I discovered that the owners of a doughnut shop in College Park served some Burmese fare on Sundays as the result of some customers’ demand. After a few years of popularity, it closed its carry-out joint and opened a formal space in downtown Silver Spring, MD. I must admit that I have forgotten to pay them a visit to write this blog even though I have been meaning to for the longest while. So, here it is.
I remember a couple of appetizers from my visits years ago. The first was Squash Fritters. Pieces of zucchini-like vegetable have been battered and deep-fried, served with a spicy sauce. The vegetable exuded a mild flavor while the batter was both uniquely crispy and slightly elastic by the use of rice flour; unfortunately, the batter was a bit oil-logged. The chili sauce, tasting house-made, was sweet, spicy, sour, and salty, being the necessary condiment to add a good punch to the mild bites. The comrade to this appetizer is the eggplant version. Here, instead of the firmer squash, the bites had a creamy smooth interior, and this time the frying was expertly done with less of a greasy feel.
An appetizer that sounds unique and exotic is the Green Tealeaf Salad. The plate arrived with a cornucopia of ingredients and textures: crunch cabbage leaves, crispy fried lentils, slices of tomato, caramelized garlic slivers, all brought together with crushed tea leaves and a splash of fish sauce (an option provided by the server). The first bite can be disarming for the uninitiated with the rather strong tannin from the green tea leaves. But after a few mouthfuls, the palate picks up the other elements and the fish sauce that balance out the stringency. This is definitely up my alley as something gastronomically adventurous that spells uniquely Burmese.
Another small bite that caught my attention was Gram Fritters. One bite into them took my by surprise as it was beyond what I expected. Instead of a stodgy dough, what I tasted was crispy on the outside and fluffy light and savory in the middle, with an airy sponginess to the mix that made them very appealing. The lentil flour mix was well-seasoned and made aromatic and interesting by the use of curry leaves. Here, we have a dish that clearly points to Burma’s location as neighbor to the South Indian continent with this Indian-influenced dish. With textures and flavors like these, I wouldn’t hesitate to make this a regular order on my visits.
Another well-known Burmese dish is a soup called Mohingar. I tried it years ago at this place, and I give the dish a revisit. The first sip this time was a bit of a shock: the soup was very fishy and there was an interesting funk to it that somehow reminded me of chitterlings, if that is possible. The slices of onion added some sweetness, and the cilantro added some herbaciousness while the lime juice the necessary brightness that cut through the strong fishiness. Despite the overwhelming flavor, I quite enjoyed the noodle soup. Perhaps, this batch was cooked and reheated for a bit too often since my online research pointed towards freshly made recipes with chunks of fish, instead of being pureed in this version.
My order on one visit was Pork and Pickled Mango Hin. I have had this dish a couple of times before, and this time it didn’t fail on its promise. The chunks of meat were not too porky but fork tender without being overcooked. The sauce was a unique combination of chili heat, a bit of sourness from the pickled mango made tender from the stewing, and a unique brininess from the mango pickling that added more allure to the dish. A note of fennel seed added some punch to this mix that kept my interest with each bite. My companion’s order was Catfish ChoyChin Gway. Pieces of fresh catfish has been fried slightly crisp and then stir-fried with some sweet onions and green peppers. The sauce was the binding element that brought everything together with its slight sweetness, a good heat of chili heat (perhaps dried chili paste) and a fruitiness from perhaps crushed tomatoes. This flavor combination was subtlely unique without over challenging the taste buds, and I kept going back to that wonderful sauce.
DanPauk was a dish I remembered as the establishment’s signature dish that was first served in its early days as the donut shop. Here we have pieces of chicken thigh cooked tender and tasting well-marinated with a sauce made sweet with a chockfull of caramelized onions. But its rice companion pretty much steals the show with its heady perfume of cardamom, cumin, and saffron, along with bits of peas and plump raisins that made each forkful very foodgasmic. A beef dish called Ame Thar Hnut was a friend’s order. The beef was a quality cut cooked until fork tender, slathered in a sauce reminding me of Malay rendang with its root and spice herbs. Although it lacked in spice heat (my friend’s request), this dish was another winner.
A dessert harking to Indian cuisine is Shweji much alike the Indian Sooji. Instead of the milk and butter version semolina pudding of its neighbor, what we have here is a version made with coconut milk. Pieces of raisin echo the appropriate sweetness that is not cloying at all. The topping of poppy seeds add a slight crunch to this warm sweet goodness – make sure to save some room for this happy ending.
Mandalay is one of the handful of Burmese establishments in the DMV area, and it does a wonderful job with its offerings which were well-prepared, tasting unique to that part of the world, and exciting to the palette. The appetizers of the fritters were a good start with fresh vegetal qualities paired with that awesome chili sauce, as well as the one made with lentils that blew me away. Yes, the Mohingar soup here was a bit of a challenge, but a fresh pot of it would probably win anyone over. As for the entrees, the ones we ordered checked the right boxes, including the Sunday special and the signature dish, DanPauk, which would make anyone make a special trip just to savor it. And don’t foget to always leave room for that warm Shweji.