Burmese Cuisine in the Chicago 'Burbs at Pa Lian
I bet you have never had Burmese food. I didn't either until just a few weeks ago. I was in the area of my favorite pho restaurant with a friend, and I turned on Google maps to see how close we were to it. Google showed me all the restaurants in the area, including Pa Lian, listed as a Burmese restaurant. "I've never had Burmese food - I wonder what its like? Let's try that!" Luckily my friend is a fellow adventurous eater. We were not disappointed.
Despite an unassuming exterior in a strip mall next to a take-away American-Chinese joint and a laundromat in Wheaton, IL, we were greeted by a charming host to a cheery lime green interior decorated with paper parasols and fabric tablecloths. Pa Lian is also the ONLY Burmese restaurant in Illinois! I knew we were in for some serious eats!
The menu was really exciting - offerings looked almost familiar, like a blend
of Thai and Indian food. This makes sense - Myanmar is roughly located between these countries. Pa Lian offers a selection of appetizers and incredible salads amid a mix of curries and noodle dishes. The menu might have some unfamiliar names, but offers really approachable food with lots of healthy and vegetarian options. I recommend you go with a table full of friends or family so you can sample a wide variety of what they offer.
Since I was new to this cuisine, and didn't want to miss anything that was a "must eat" on the menu, I asked the owner for a little help. I told him we were brave eaters and wanted to try a selection of "the best" on the menu - we would be sharing dishes. He ran through a list of selections, and we picked from those.
We started with Burmese Tofu - the only tofu made with chickpeas and not soy. It was lightly fried and came with an amazing homemade sweet-spicy sauce with garlic and cilantro. The tofu had a slightly crispy exterior and a savory custard-like interior. Unlike its traditional soy counterpart, this tofu had flavor - nutty and almost eggy. Super delicious! With tofu this good, I could not wait for the rest of the meal.
Next, we dug into some pork and cabbage spring rolls and a salad unlike anything I have ever eaten. The tea-leaf salad is a cold dish made with fermented whole green tea leaves, fried fava beans, yellow beans, peanuts, sesame seeds, tomatoes, fried garlic, sunflower seeds, cabbage, and lime. It was sour, savory, nutty, and a hint of the funkiness of fermented food. If you have followed this blog, you know how much I adore that fermented food flavor! This salad packed a punch of incredible flavors and textures. It was served with a few sliced of crazy-hot green chili peppers. The owner instructed us to take a bite of the salad, and with it in your mouth, to take a tiny bite of the chili. Wow! You NEED to try this salad (you can nix the chili if you would like).
After that salad, our two warm dishes arrived. We ordered a goat curry called SeitThar KaLarPe Hinn and a chicken noodle dish called Nan-Gyi-Thoke. The goat curry was tender and silken. The chunks of goat had some bone attached, which adds to the flavor of the sauce. The curry was thickened with yellow peas simmered in onion, garlic, and ginger with a mild heat. It had all the complexity that you would expect from a good curry - layers of flavor and slow-cooked meat. While it was complex like Indian-style curries, there was a freshness in the flavors that reminded me of Thai.
The noodles came next and were accompanied with a little show - we eat first with our eyes, right?! The dish was presented in a beautiful composed bowl (see pic below). Then our host mixed the hot noodles, sauce, and toppings together table-side all while talking to us about this history of Myanmar and its food traditions. Religion strongly influences the cuisine - Buddhism and Muslim preferences are strong depending on the area. Also the surrounding countries of India, China and Thailand have all added their stamp on the cuisine with curries, noodles, tofu, and fried snacks. These noodles were just as complex as the curry - the ingredients form a synergy that the individual components could not match alone. The freshness and quality of the ingredients really allowed this noodle dish to shine.
I really enjoyed the lunch at Pa Lian and will be back with more friends! They have a BYOB alcohol license, so this would be a perfect place to bring a group or friends or a date and carry along a few bottles. I would recommend aromatic white wines like a Pino Blanc, Gewurztraminer, or Kerner. If you are looking for reds, stick with those that are low in tannin. I would suggest a Gamay (Beaujolais) (you can chill this one slightly) or a Spanish Garnacha for a more full-bodied wine.
Can you tell I'm already planning my return?