If your adventurous palette is dreaming of a culinary journey into Southeast Asia, look no further than Wheaton’s Pa Lian Burmese Kitchen for an introduction to this bright, bold, subtly-spiced cuisine. From crunchy salads featuring fermented tea leaves to pan-fried chickpea tofu, the eclectic fare makes up for where Pa Lian falls short in terms of ambiance.
Due to staff shortages, Pa Lian, unfortunately, isn’t able to operate at full capacity. This means that food is served in takeout containers, drinks and desserts have been removed from the menu, and seating is limited. While the restaurant won’t look quite like the bright, spacious interior adorned with elements of Burmese culture plastered on their website, the focus remains firmly on their food.
Pa Lian’s menu aims to capture the essence of Burmese cuisine: fresh, subtle flavors that draw strong influence from India, China, and Thailand. They serve a variety of street food appetizers, salads, noodles, rice, and meat-based dishes. And whether you’re familiar with the ingredients on the menu or not, Pa Lian expertly encourages their customers to venture into these new flavors through dishes that sound (and ultimately are) inviting.
BOLD BURMESE FARE
The first dish that arrived was the Tofu Gyaw — their signature chickpea tofu pan-fried and served with a vibrant, tangy dipping sauce. Burmese tofu is different than the traditional since it’s made out of chickpeas instead of tofu, contributing to its distinct yellow color and denser texture. A uniform golden brown color on the outside, this tofu is unlike any other.
The chickpea flavor is very prominent upon taking a few bites, contributing to this more earthy, chewy texture compared to the usual springiness or delicateness of soybean tofu. Though the texture might feel a bit dry to some, the dipping sauce brings the dish back to life — notes of tangy tamarind and astringent chili breathing some flavor into an otherwise simple staple.
The Lahpet Thoke was the next stop on our culinary journey — a fermented tea leaf salad dressed with fried fava beans, cabbage, peanuts, and lime. While the infamous green papaya salad enjoyed across Thailand is quite popular, consider this salad on its silent yet well-deserved rise to fame. A mix of colors and textures that truly makes this salad a step up from what we’ve come to know in America, this dish is the epitome of Burmese cuisine: simple, fresh, utterly unforgettable.
The thinly julienned cabbage and tomatoes contribute to this wonderful crunch and base for the subtle herby, fruity flavor of the fermented tea leaves. The squeeze of lime — unexpectedly enough — is a major part of the flavor profile, making for this addictive zesty bite. With toppings like fried fava bean, yellow bean, and peanuts for this more nutty undertone, the salad features a well-balanced flavor that is unlike any other.
Other appetizers worth a try include the Pe-Eih-Kyar-Kwe (fried Burmese Bread served with Vatana, a split yellow pea stew) and the Gin Thoke (a ginger salad featuring these incredible juliennes of ginger for a dynamic, summery flavor). With all dishes prices around $10, Pa Lian serves as a gateway into the cuisine, with reasonably priced dishes ready for customers to sample.
The first entree brought out was the KaukSwe Thoke — thick wheat noodles tossed in a dressing and garnished with garlic oil, chickpea tofu, green onion, carrot, and chickpea powder. The dish is this mellow golden color, acting as a canvas for the bright greens and reds of the vegetables to shine. The nutty flavor — likely from the chickpea powder — dominates the flavor upon your first few bites, but eventually subsides as the chili and green onion start to come through. Though the dish certainly lacks a squeeze of lime and pinch of salt that keeps from being as bright and refreshing as the appetizers, it remains a satisfying dish nonetheless.
The second entree we tried was the Mot-Phat Dok — rice vermicelli tossed in a light dressing and topped with garlic oil, fried onion, green onion, and chickpea powder. Though the ingredients are relatively similar to the previous noodle dish, the flavor is completely different — it leans much more into rich, garlicky notes. The noodles themselves are light and bouncy, feeling much less dense and heavy compared to the wheat noodles. The sauce coats the noodles in this silky, salty sauce that amplifies the garlic and onion without being overbearing, a hallmark of the more mellowed flavors consistent throughout the night.
With no other restaurant in the area that offers such an expansive look into the vibrant cuisine Myanmar has to offer, Pa Lian is an experience worth every penny. While the pandemic has severely limited their operations, dynamic flavors and a timeless comfort will propel it well into the future.
Pa Lian Burmese Kitchen is located at 254 E. Geneva Road in Wheaton. Learn more by calling (331) 716-7905 or visiting http://www.orderpalianburmeserestaurant.com/.
Aryav Bothra is a food critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl