Hungry Hound: Pa Lian in Wheaton is one of two Burmese restaurants in Illinois

Saturday, April 6, 2019
Hungry Hound: La Pian
Hungry Hound: La Pian

NAPERVILLE, Ill. (WLS) -- The country of Myannmar, formerly known as Burma, is barely understood in the U.S. Even less so is its cuisine, since there are only two Burmese restaurants in the state.

It's in the western suburbs, where a small but strong ex-pat population has settled. Our Hungry Hound headed out there to check out the menu for himself recently. He was pleasantly surprised by what he found.

EXTRA COURSE: 'Fried tofu' at Pa Lian

In Steve's Extra Course video, he talked about an appetizer that is a classic Burmese offering, called "fried tofu," but in reality, it's not tofu at all. He'll explain.

You'd think Burmese food would resemble its neighbors in Thailand, India or China. It's close, but also unique unto itself. At Pa Lian, which has been open barely a year in a Wheaton mall, the family here is cooking just as if they were back home.

"Basically what we eat is salad, rice and curries are most of the dishes we eat every day," said Tawk Zalian, owner of Pa Lian. "Tea leaf salad is one of the national dishes - essential dish too - we eat every day."

They begin by shredding cabbage and adding in a few sliced tomatoes. Then a crunchy combo of lentils, yellow beans, toasted peanuts and sesame, followed by a spoonful of fermented tea leaves. A bit of oil, some lime and a vigorous mix to combine everything, resulting in a fantastically delicious salad.

"It's crunchy, a little bitternesss; you put the limes, that's gonna make a little sour too. Depends on your taste," Zalian said.

Curries in Burma are based on ginger, onion and garlic and they're not spicy. They'll briefly boil some rice stick noodles until soft, then add them to the base of the bowl. The thin curry is ladled over, and garnished with fresh cilantro.

They also use chewy udon noodles, in a drier dish with curried, ground chicken and crispy onions. The influence from neighboring countries is obvious.

"Next to Thailand, India and China, you're in the middle, so kind of surrounded by flavors, you can see a little bit but it comes out a unique flavor," Zalian said.

Another favorite: a thick, mild curry that looks more like gravy, embedded with slow-cooked pork belly. Perfect comfort on a cold day.

"Most people tell me, 'It's flavors we've never had before,'" Zalian said.

So don't try to compare Burmese to Thai or Indian or Chinese, because it draws from all of those countries. But there are some dishes that are truly unique, like this tea leaf salad you're not going to find anywhere else in the world.


254 E. Geneva Rd., Wheaton