With the rainbow of restaurants in Boston, it's hard to believe this city used to be a dining backwater.
Scrod, pot roast, baked beans, and Grapenut pudding once dominated the local landscape. These days, that's what the tourists eat at Durgin Park while the rest of us dine at Afghan, Colombian, Cuban, Ethiopian, Jamaican, Malaysian, and Moroccan restaurants scattered across the city.
Now we can add another cuisine to the mix: Burmese.
If my memory is correct, not since Mandalay on Huntington Avenue (and, later, in East Cambridge) did the Boston area have an exclusively Burmese restaurant. Enter YoMa, which opened in February, smartly choosing student-drenched, immigrant-rich Allston as its home.
The food of Burma (now Myanmar) is an amalgam of Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian cuisines and reminds me most of Thai, Vietnamese, and Cambodian cooking. At YoMa, lemongrass, chili peppers, lime, garlic, ginger, shallots, and cilantro are plentiful, as are rice and noodles. YoMa's owner, Burmese-born Sai Kyaw, slow-cooks some of his dishes and uses a mortar to hand-grind some spices, a laborious process that brings out subtle flavors.
When YoMa is good, it is very, very good. Its primary weakness isn't its food, it's its service. Case in point: the two-hour wait for one of our food orders. More on that below.
If I were to assemble the perfect YoMa meal, I'd start with AaMaeTharThot ($6.95), a barbecued beef salad with a sneaky spiciness that creeps in slowly and, if you happen to bite into a chili pepper, explodes like fire. For soup, I'd have the marvelous JaZanHinGar ($4.75) made with chicken, clear noodles, and black mushrooms. Try a spoonful as is; then add the lime, fish sauce, and dried chilis that come with it. They transform a nice soup into something entirely different -- a sour, salty, smoky concoction that's much more complex and satisfying.
Three entrees are standouts: jumbo shrimp curry ($8.75) in an aromatic mixture of tomatoes, shallots, garlic, cumin, and coriander; KhaYanTheeNut ($8.95), stewed eggplant that gets subtle sweetness from palm sugar; and MeeShay ($7.45), slow-roasted pork so tender it falls apart with the nudge of a chopstick. Accompanying the pork is silken tofu lightly fried in delicious chickpea flour batter.
I know what I wouldn't order again, too. BuThee Jaw ($4.25), gourd tempura, tastes like fried zucchini sticks; skip it, as well as the heavily fried spring rolls ($4.25) and Shan-KhotSwe ($6.50), bland chicken curry made with unappetizing dark meat. Seafood salad ($9.95) is generously stocked with shrimp, squid, crab, and fish; but it lacks a strong marinade to meld the tastes together.
Some dishes are mild, such as MoneNyinHinCho ($4.75), a miso-like soup, and KetJee Keit ($7.95), which is basically Burmese pad Thai. Others, including the shrimp curry, are so wickedly spicy that my cheeks became flushed, my brow dampened, and my sinuses ran with abandon.
YoMa's main weak spot is the molasses-like pace at which food moves from the kitchen to the dining room. On our first visit, it took 40 minutes for our first dish to arrive, and our final entree came nearly two hours after we placed our order. That's an outrageously long time to wait for your food, and we would have been indignant had we been in a rush or had our waitress not been such a sweetheart. The problem? Two cooks were filling orders for 18 customers, an unworkable ratio.
On a second visit, when we had the restaurant to ourselves for a while, our food arrived briskly: Within 10 minutes of ordering, appetizers had arrived, and entrees soon followed. So until more cooks are hired, visit when the dining room is empty -- or visit with copious patience.