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A Burmese Bounce-Back

Oakland’s funkiest salad rises again in Jack London Square.

 

Everyone likes a good comeback story. All the better if the protagonist is a beloved underdog—like, for instance, the scrappy East Oakland Burmese restaurant whose sudden demise last year left a pungent tea-leaf-salad-size hole in the hearts of faithful customers.

Thankfully, Grocery Cafe—the eatery in question—reopened in August in Jack London Square. Before that, a failed health inspection had necessitated prohibitively expensive upgrades at the restaurant’s original location. Plenty of mom-and-pop restaurants have been done in by less dire circumstances, but chef-owner William Lue had a stroke of luck: Executives at CIM, the company that owns Jack London Square, turned out to be fans of Burmese cuisine. They gave Lue a good deal on rent, paving the way for the restaurant to be reborn.

Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, the original Grocery Cafe didn’t have the sleek decor or fancy cocktails of, say, the Burma Superstar on the other side of town. Part of its charm was how modest it was—how Lue’s cooking seemed less like restaurant food and more like something your Burmese uncle or auntie might whip up. It didn’t compromise on the cuisine’s often-funky flavors.

Grocery Cafe 2.0 will feature more of the same. The larger digs allow Lue to dedicate half the dining room to the family-style banquets he had started serving at the old location—10 or more courses, starting at $25 a person. And he plans to eventually add an entire page of new, ambitious entrées to the regular menu: alligator stew simmered with pickled mangoes, for instance, and a Burmese “cioppino” of sorts.

Mostly, though, old customers will be happy to be reunited with classics like the tea leaf salad ($13), which is one of the tastiest, and most pungent, versions you’ll find in the Bay Area. The individual components get mixed at the table in the traditional way—the cabbage, the garlic (in fried and freshly chopped forms), the panoply of roasted seeds and nuts, the earthy fermented tea leaves themselves, and probably a half dozen other ingredients including, for another dollar, dried river shrimp that add a surprising natural sweetness. All those flavors and textures “dancing in your mouth,” as Lue puts it: They’ve been worth the wait.

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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