Taking shortcut to Burmese fare

July 04, 2002|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Love unusual cuisine, will travel. Which is why we ventured to Mandalay.

Before the folks who monitor expense accounts at The Sun break into hives at the thought of the cost of airfare to Mandalay, let me add that the Mandalay I refer to is a small restaurant in College Park, not the city in Myanmar (the Asian country also known as Burma).

It's one of two places in the area that specialize in Burmese food, which bears the culinary influences of Thailand, China and India. (The second place, called Burma, is in Washington.)

Burmese fare tends to be simpler than the cuisine of the other countries, relying mainly upon one or two ingredients to dominate rather than several.

A beef curry with basil tasted almost entirely of basil; the lean beef provided a textured, mildly spiced backdrop for the large cooked green leaves. The fragrant entree could disappoint meat lovers, but basil fans (like our group) might think they've died and gone to heaven.

The main note in a catfish curry in red tamarind sauce was chili, and it was hot enough to make me reach for water after each bite, yet not so hot that it overwhelmed everything else in the dish. (Mild at Mandalay is the equivalent of medium at other Asian places.)

A large mound of fragrant white rice and the two fat slices of mild, batter-fried catfish in the dish helped cool things down a notch.

The most interesting dish we had was pork with mango pickle tips, cooked in a reddish-brown onion sauce. The briny fruit tasted more like pickles than mangoes and provided wonderful, exotic contrast to the thin slices of tender meat.

Mandalay's salads deserve four stars, particularly an attractive one made of dark-green, pickled, fermented tea leaves, shredded cabbage, sesame seeds and fried onions, and dressed in a lemon-fish sauce (an integral ingredient in the foods of Southeast Asia). This salad, unlike the entrees, was wonderfully complex, tasting salty at first, then fruity. Less dramatic, but equally good, was a salad of fried tofu bits tossed with cabbage, carrot shavings and the lemon-fish sauce.

The Burmese spring rolls were smaller, less greasy and better than their Chinese counterparts; the chicken, cabbage and carrot filling felt lighter, even though it looked quite dense. The spring rolls were far superior to our other appetizer, four tasteless fritters made of gram - yellow split peas.

Mandalay was bustling on the night we went, probably in part because it made Washingtonian magazine's recent list of 100 "cheap eats." Our entrees arrived on the heels of our salads, and our plates were cleared all too hastily.

Of the two desserts on the menu, only one was available - golden shweji, a cake made of baked semolina (aka cream of wheat), coconut cream, raisins and sugar. We got it, with some trepidation triggered by childhood memories of having the hot cereal shoved down our gullets. Fortunately, the cake was more like a really good coconut cream pie laced with raisins.

Mandalay does not have a liquor license. It does have some of the most delicious iced coffee available, made the Burmese way with condensed milk.

Mandalay Restaurant and Cafe

Where: 9091A Baltimore Ave. (Route 1), College Park

Open: For lunch and dinner Tuesdays to Sundays

Prices: Appetizers $2.50 to $6.95; entrees $5.95 to $7.95

Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V

Call: 301-345-8540

Food: * * * 1/2

Service: * * 1/2

Atmosphere: * * 1/2

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