Visual allure often isn't a virtue we value when chasing obscure flavors in L.A.'s international neighborhoods. In fact, adventurous diners tend to appreciate the opposite: The grungier the location, the more accomplished we feel for having sought it out. Looks be damned — let the fireworks happen on the flavor spectrum.
While aesthetics may not matter much to us, they are of great importance to Delyn Chow, the 33-year-old chef-owner of Burmese restaurant Daw Yee in Monterey Park. From the carefully hand-drawn peacock on the chalkboard outside to the deep caramel wooden walls inside, the bright cushions along the banquette and even the colorful plates of food, this is a restaurant that takes good looks seriously.
There's also Burmese hip-hop and R&B booming in the dining room — Chow is providing excitement for all the senses.
L.A. has a very small pool of Burmese restaurants; among them, Daw Yee does not boast the most extensive menu. That distinction probably goes to Yoma, which has been open far longer and sits practically right around the corner, with a roster of more than 100 dishes. Nonetheless, Daw Yee is fascinating for one big reason — namely, that it gives L.A. something unusual: a Burmese restaurant that caters to younger diners.
It may seem like a small thing, really. But Burmese food is relatively rare in the United States, our understanding of it limited. After all, travel to the country once called Burma, now Myanmar, has been heavily restricted. To already have glimmers of a next-gen Burmese food scene? It's pretty cool.
Chow opened Daw Yee 18 months ago in the same neighborhood he lived in after emigrating from Burma as a junior high school student. In the San Gabriel Valley, his family began making platha, the Burmese version of Indian bread paratha, and selling it to their community. Chow's mother also operated a restaurant for a few years in the early aughts, in El Monte. Chow's endeavor began as a way to revive his mother's recipes, and Daw Yee is named after her.
Chow has no formal training in the kitchen but the pride he takes in his food is enormous. Dishes are plated as beautiful collections of ingredients, which you often toss together yourself. He imports fermented tea leaves from Myanmar, giving his tea-leaf salad a smoky, tannic whisper, along with its crunchy roasted peanuts, fried yellow lentils, fried garlic, roasted sesame seeds, diced tomatoes and shredded cabbage.
In these magical dishes, you can taste history and culture intersect right there in the bowl. Bordering China, Laos and Thailand, with India just across the Bay of Bengal and close proximity to Vietnam and Cambodia as well, Myanmar is a geographic crossroads, with a religiously diverse population and food with ties to multitudes of cultures. You'll get the noodles of China, the curries of India and Thailand, and just about any other Southeast Asian flavor you can think of, along with certain foods unlike any of that.
There's a mellowness to this food; the curries less spiced than the typical Indian versions, the funk common in Thai and Vietnamese food present but less assertive.
Depending on your mood, at Daw Yee you can get flavors as familiar as a mild beef curry rife with masala, with hints of India but somehow sweeter and more mellow. Or you can go for "pork mix," a mound of bouncy pig offal, deeply flavored, slightly stinky and stewed in soy and star anise, served with a bracing chili sauce.
Noodles and curries make up a good chunk of typical Burmese cuisine. At Daw Yee, many of the noodle dishes come with familiar, thin rice noodles, but variations are available that are unique to Burmese food. For instance: Thoke, a short, fat noodle usually made with rice flour, is here made with tofu. Chow also makes his own tofu, but uses chickpeas rather than soy as the base. The outcome is different, as you might expect, with a warm, slick, yellow, puddinglike tofu thoke, which comes doused in a tamarind dressing and a slaw of cabbage and onions. Once you get past the textural oddity, it reveals itself as a hearty and refreshing pleasure.
Shan noodles, a dish that's served here with a mild chicken curry, come presented like an artist's palette, the thin rice noodles surrounded by daubs of color: a spoonful of deep red chili sauce, a pile of roasted peanuts, some pale yellow fennel-heavy pickle and a dollop of chicken curry.
There are also big bowls of steaming noodle soup, which show the Chinese side of the cuisine, such as the kyae oh noodle soup. It's enough to feed a whole table and comes with both thick and thin rice noodles in a mild, thin broth waiting to be punched up with the accompanying slick of chili sauce. The bowl holds many gifts, including hunks of sausage, ultra-fresh bok choy and tiny hardboiled quail eggs.
As for that platha, the bread the family was originally known for, it's thicker and more luxuriant than what you might know from Indian paratha, with layers upon layers of oiled dough. It tastes almost like a thin, crisp croissant soaked in butter.
Mohinga is widely considered to be Myanmar's national dish. The lightly flavored catfish chowder comes with rice noodles and has a savory quality that sneaks up on you, seeming almost fishily bland at first but then becoming haunting and addictive.
That mildness of flavor can sometimes cause food here to seem underwhelming, or too heavy on the salt in light of its lack of other spices. A bone-in goat curry, for instance, was heavy and salty, without a lot of nuance to buoy it along. Generally, though, this isn't the place to come for those fireworks on the palate — more often it's the quiet nuance of a dish that draws you in.
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There are Americanisms at play here as well, aspects of Daw Yee that showcase Chow's upbringing in the States. He has a fascination with lemonade, and on weekends he serves all kinds of crazy flavors. (Recently cotton candy lemonade was an option.) From the regular menu, you can get a huge Mason jar of house-made lemonade punctuated with mint or peach. Or, if you're feeling wild, perhaps you'd rather try the version made with grass jelly, strips of herbed jelly usually served as dessert. They give the lemonade an overtone of anise-flavored tea, like a slimy and exotic Arnold Palmer.
Chow opened Daw Yee for a number of reasons: to keep his mother's recipes alive, to serve the underserved and sizable Burmese community in Monterey Park, and to introduce Burmese food to his friends from other cultures.
But mainly he wanted to bring his own perspective to the food of his country. He's deeply in love with the culture he comes from but also interested in making a fun, cool place to hang out. That we can have that in Los Angeles is a pleasure to behold. Much like Daw Yee itself.
DAW YEE | Two stars | 111 N. Rural Drive, Monterey Park | (626) 573-8080 | dawyee.com | Wed.-Mon., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. | Entrees, $5.95-$7.95 | No alcohol | Lot and street parking