Golden Star Restaurant: Yangon’s Finest!


Burma is a tea culture, and it is also a snacking culture. Coffee may be king in Vietnam, but Burma is the middle-ground between South Asia and Southeast Asia: in Yangon, it’s always tea-and-nosh time somewhere.

People drink sweet milky tea reminiscent of India’s iconic masala chai,but they also are partial to clear Chinese teas, sometimes served with sugar. The second most important aspect of Burmese leisure time? The snacks. The snacks are key. (And perhaps a newspaper. Or two).

It was in the spirit of hunting down tea-snacks that we stumbled upon the Golden Star Restaurant, a noodle-tea-snack shop on 50 Street Lower Block, a bit off Maha Bandoola Road.

Like most Burmese noodle-tea-snack shops, it’s a small place with small tables, but unlike most, Golden Star is set under some appealing green trees and is on a relatively quiet side-street—no need to suck in exhaust fumes with your meal.

The very charming head waiter at Golden Star Restaurant.

We sat down, and as at most Burmese snack-shops, various plates of baked goods appeared within seconds. These baked goods usually are somewhat unremarkable, but we noticed immediately that the snacks here looked awfully nice.

The extremely friendly owner, who is named Nu Nu Wai, quickly noticed the foreigners perusing the (English! Shocking!) menu and informed us in English that her daughter studies medicine in Los Angeles, and we’d really like to try the Shan noodles, wouldn’t we? Well, of course. When you put it like that.

Shan noodles are sort of a soup-less, chilled version of the iconic Northern Thai Khao soi: spiced chicken, egg, some pickled vegetables, and curry spices. This is a simple and satisfying dish that seems to be ubiquitous (and often a bit mundane-looking) throughout Burma: at Golden Star, it was a remarkably good and appealing-look light meal, with a rich flavor and a rather unique texture.

Once Nu Nu Wai realized that we were quite gung-ho about the noodles, she immediately began plying us with more baked goods. “I bake everything here! All myself!” she said, as she continued to put multicolored plates of something in front of our noses.

I dutifully sampled a puff pastry stuffed with mutton, which was extravagantly good: a millennium away from the tragic specimens served on long-haul bus lines. And here I thought I was largely immune to the earthly delights of pastry.

Did you know the Burmese have a remarkable hand with flan? Bigger, less appetizing versions of the crackle-crusted Burmese flan above are dished out of big metal bowls on the street in Yangon: these delightful personal-sized versions were eggy, ethereal, and not too sweet, with a bit of crunch on top. You could quite easily sell these as exotic Burmese creme brulee in the dark heart of San Francisco’s hipster warrens for around $14 a pop. Ms Nu Nu Wai may want to contemplate a lucrative franchise.

We were then gifted a special tea-cake, containing red-bean paste and salted duck egg. “A gift for you!” said Ms Nu Nu, and although I was by then uncomfortably full, I was willing to take on the arduous task of finishing the thing. Unsurprisingly: delicious. A buttery, flaky exterior, juxtaposed with rich, creamy red-bean paste and the slightly salty kick of duck egg. Not a Mooncake, as Terry hastened to point out—something regular people who are interested in the welfare of their arteries might eat with tea, instead.

I got up to take photos, which meant the kitchen staff and Ms Nu Nu immediately began having fun posing and indicating what I should be taking photos of. Here she is with some of her baked goods.
The kitchen staff let me wander around and take photos of them, as the girls and boys chided each other, giggling, into posing. Much amusement over the final results when I pulled them up on my viewfinder.

On the way out, Ms Nu Nu inquired if we’d like to sample her lunch. “It is little Burmese fish,” she said: and so it was, a curry made of tiny, halved silverfish, served with rich and a side-dish or two in the typical Burmese fashion. It looked delicious, but as any more food would have likely inspired nightmarish gastric discomfort, we had to decline.

Golden Star Restaurant tucked in among some other noodle and curry stalls, and you’ll miss the place if you’re walking particularly forcefully—never a great idea in Yangon, Land of the Deadly Gaping Sidewalk Hole. Observe the figure above.

If you commit it to memory, you too may be wrapped into the warm embrace of delicious noodles and copious, nigh-on-deadly quantities of home-made Burmese tea cakes.

I am by no means a Yangon authority (though I did avoid plummeting feet-first into any of the aforementioned Gaping Sidewalk Holes), but for me, Golden Star Restaurant and the friendly presence of Ms Nu Nu makes this little joint just about the platonic ideal of tea-and-snack-shops.

May she become famous and featured in the Lonely Planet, or at least one of the more genteel episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s latest. She and her staff deserve it.




I Got to See the President in Yangon, and Yes, It Was Awesome

So, as this photo I took may indicate, I did get in to see the President. Here’s my GlobalPost story on the visit.

(Play “Spot the Secret Service Agent/Milford Man in the above image!)

People have asked me how I got in to see the President’s Yangon speech without prior permission. The answer to this question is easy: Dumb Luck.

I in fact wandered over to the official press entrance with a couple of Financial Times reporters, and stood around looking a bit sad with two German students studying abroad in Switzerland. The Burmese volunteer took our names down and very politely continued to tell us to “keep waiting.”

Eventually, the very intense US press attache to Myanmar emerged and said something about how “there’s no space for extras.”

Then he let us in anyway!

I was issued my first-ever White House Press Pool badge, which I may or may not get framed.

Most of the photojournalists had already set up on the other side of the room from the stage at Yangon University’s Convocation Hall, so I went up to the balcony where they were putting the print journalists.

I set up and began tapping out a story on my Galaxy SIII (a useful little device)—as I hadn’t expected at all to get in, I was a bit behind on my background copy. Then we waited…and well, waited.

Eventually, Aung Sang Suu Kyi came in. I asked a Burmese journalists what all the commotion on the floor was about and she (also very politely) pointed out Aung Sang Suu Kyi in the scrum, looking, as one might expect, surprisingly elegant as she was mobbed by excited Burmese supporters and diplomatic types.

Hillary followed some minutes after, dressed in white, and she and Aung Sang Suu Kyi immediately began talking and laughing like old buddies. As a female political junkie, this was quite an exciting thing to see—two monumentally important women, obviously fond of each other. (Yes, I’d love to vote for Hillary in 2016).

I eventually noticed a number of photographers were setting up on a riser tantalizingly close to the podium, so I decided to see if I could find a way to get down there. I actually did, which meant I had pretty good access for some close-up shots of the POTUS. This was awesome.

Obama strode in, beaming everywhere (as he wouldn’t in Cambodia). No Presidential march played, which I willy freely admit depressed me a little, as that would have been awfully psychologically satisfying.

He greeted the crowd in Burmese, which made everyone extremely happy. He also gave a wai—a traditional Southeast Asian greeting which Burmese people don’t happen to do—but as I keep making the same mistake, I suppose he can be forgiven.

I liked his speech. I think most of us critical, fractious Southeast Asia watchers did, if I’m interpreting my Twitter and blog tea-leaves correctly. It was more of a lecture than anything else, perhaps fitting for a country that is in need of some advice on the usual operations of democracy. (Certainly the students liked it: a little lecture by the Leader of the Free World on the precepts of democracy, not exactly an every-day occurrence).

He speaks well, and powerfully: seeing Obama speak in person gives one an idea of the nervousness he engendered in the Romney camp when he was really on. I certainly felt that much better about voting for the guy a few weeks back: I’m finding it well-nigh impossible to imagine Romney executing a Southeast Asian visit with even a modicum of understanding or grace.

Obama was definitely on for the Burmese, as he explained Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms to the crowd, and as he emphasized that Burma was in need of national reconciliation—a statement that drew applause, which appeared to start with the ethnic minorities seated in the room, dressed in their native attire.

Obama extended the hand-fist metaphor that he began with Iran: “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Much to some detractors relief, I belive, he didn’t act as if the battle was finished in Burma for democracy—which it isn’t. He emphasized that the Burmese government is merely beginning a long journey towards a less heinous government.

Further, he mentioned the Rohingya by name—with Aung Sang Suu Kyi in the room, who has been noticeably reticent on the matter.

“But there is no excuse for violence against innocent people. And the Rohingya hold themselves — hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do.”

It was all quite good (I feel), and I noticed that the Burmese people I spoke with about the speech outside the venue kept coming back to national reconciliation and the import of it. Perhaps the audience for this event was unusually liberal—in fact,almost certainly so–but the fact that none seemed interested in defending the old divides is likely heartening. We’ll see what happens with Kachin state and Chin state and with the Rohingya and with Freedom of Speech.

Tellingly (as many have pointed out) Obama referred to Burma as Myanmar for the first time, using a spelling that the US government does not officially endorse, and which the Burmese/Myanmar government prefers.

Whatever happens, I feel proud to say I was in the room for that speech and for that moment. And I do feel that Obama’s speech marked a real sea change in Burma—when things that need to change changed.

Then Obama came to Cambodia and snubbed the hell out of Hun Sen.

More on that later, but here’s my GlobalPost story on the whole affair.