901 E Street, East Village
'I'm collecting hellos," I say.
"Ah," Michelle says. "So you want to know 'hello' in Burmese?"
"Exactly," I say.
She writes, slowly and carefully.
Min ga lar bar.
"There," she says, pushing the piece of paper over to me. " 'Hello' in Burmese."
Wow. First I thought this place was Hawaiian -- "Little Hawaii," who wouldn't? Then it turns out it's Japanese. Now it turns out the owners are Burmese.
I've happened on this cute restaurant down by the main post office. Well, not totally happened. "That corner's changed again," my friend Charles, who lives downtown, told me the other day. He was talking about Ninth and E, kitty-corner from the central library. This evening, I headed past a bunch of drunks arguing and laughing outside the closed doors of the main post office, then crossed Ninth to a lit-up corner entrance on the southeast side of the intersection.
Lord. Hank and I have been here before -- back when it was Bombay Indian, then when it was Cuban, and most recently when it was Stan's "Be Back" B.B.Q. Those folks made good ribs. Pity. But, hey, The King Is Dead, Long Live the King. The fresh banners read, "Little Hawaii. Sushi, rice bowl, B.B.Q."
Hmm, so I'm thinking maybe there's some good Hawaiian chicken lau lau or Kahlúa pork to be had. I sidle in through the narrow entrance, along a row of paper lanterns. This willowy gal stands waiting behind the cash register at the bamboo counter. Lisa. I look up at the wall menu, and -- erk! It's all Japanese dishes. Full Moon Combo -- teriyaki chicken, teriyaki salmon, and soft-shell crab, $7.99, yellowtail roll, $5.99, anago (sea eel) hand roll, $1.70. That sort of thing. Couple of guys sit at one of the three inside tables, leaning over plates of rice and chicken -- looks like chicken teriyaki to me. Another lady sits alone at a bare table. Nancy. "You've come to the right place," she says. "I live in the next block. Visit twice a day, once to eat, and once to talk to Michelle. She's a darlin'."
This is when Michelle comes out from the kitchen and we get into the "hello" conversation. Turns out she and her husband Victor, who cooks, are the owners. And yes, they're from Burma, Myanmar, where that incredibly brave democracy-fighter Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest, even after getting a Nobel Peace Prize. Michelle was getting in trouble herself, demonstrating for democracy in Rangoon. That's one reason she left, came here. The other was to study microbiology at UCSD.
Dang. Here she is learning the hard stuff and working seven days a week. I feel like such a slacker.
But why cook Japanese? "Because in Bend, Oregon, where we lived first, there was no Japanese sushi place in town. I hired a professional sushi chef to teach me Japanese cooking. He was very good. And business was very good. Except I couldn't stand the cold and snow."
So why call this "Little Hawaii"? "Because I love Hawaii. It gives good feelings, even though we're not cooking Hawaiian."
She goes back to the kitchen, and I get in line for Lisa. "Don't have a lot of cash," I say up front. Then I see they have one Hawaiian thing here, after all: coconuts, for $1.50. So I order one to buy time while I defrag my brain cells.
Lisa brings it to me with the top chopped off, a big bendable straw, a little green-and-orange umbrella stuck in the top, and a long spoon to scoop flesh. Mmm. Beautiful vanillery coconut milk. Buck-fifty. With the flesh, you've got a meal right there. Make a mental note to come back with Hank, just for one of these.
"We have the teriyaki chicken bowl," Lisa suggests, kindly. Must be the sad-sack look I'm giving her. "That's $2.50. With salad and rice it's $3.99. Or California roll's $3.99, but $1.99 'to go.' " She drops her voice, says confidentially, "You could have it here, same price."
I see most of the roll dishes are 6, 7 bucks, up to 15. I think Lisa's just made me an offer I can't refuse. I go for the $2.50 chicken bowl and the eight-piece California roll. I'm out, what? -- $4.50.
Everything comes, beautifully presented. The teriyaki chicken sits on a pile of rice, with sesame seeds, artfully cut carrots, green mustard, and that sexy pink ginger. What with the rolls, stuffed with crab and avocado, it all turns out to be too much. An incredible value.
What are their chances of making it in this location? Michelle says she found this place advertised on the Internet and decided to try because it's close to the main post office and the library. "And so far, it's been good. We're breaking even, after two months."
Awesome. I ask her what she misses most about Myanmar.
"The water festival in April," she says. "Three days, celebrating the arrival of the monsoon. People throw water at each other. It's silly but fun."
Oops. Time to go.
"Are you collecting 'goodbyes' too?" Michelle says.
She grabs a pen and starts writing, carefully.
"Pyin ba ohne mei."
"Well, let's just call it au revoir for now," I say. " 'Cause I'm definitely coming back to drink more coconut."