Road from Mandalay

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Rangoon owners Christine Gyaw (center) and Chiu Mee Mee (right), with Gyaw's daughter Mya Solomon. It's the city's only Burmese restaurant.

Late last month, it was quiet by 3 p.m. in the handsome dining room at Rangoon, the city's lone Burmese restaurant, and as such, a venue from which the anti-junta street protests back home were being intently followed.

"My uncle called this morning," said Mya Solomon (nee Htay), whose mother is an owner: "We could hear gunshots [over the phone]. They were shooting, but I think it was over the heads of the monks."

For close to 15 years, Rangoon has been a fixture on north Ninth Street, the easterly flank of Chinatown, and while Vietnamese places have multiplied, and Thai, and even Malaysian - there are two now - it has remained a singular, well-run, and proudly distinctive presence.

As we commiserate, dish after dish emerges from the kitchen - creamy crabmeat dumplings fried in the shape of starbursts, and stretchy, pan-fried "thousand layer bread" (reminiscent of Penang's roti canai paper-thin pancakes) that you dip in spicy potato curry sauce, or if you prefer, a yellowish vatana dip, fashioned from the soaked, and then steamed, vatana bean, which is along the lines of a slightly firmer chickpea.

Burmese food is heavily influenced by Thai and Indian cuisines, though Christine Gyaw, one of the owners, illustrates the differences on a plate of appetizers. The crispy, almost airy, Burmese tofu, for instance, is made from fermented lentils, not the more typical soybeans. "Golden Triangles," stuffed with potato curry, share the shape of a samosa, but the dough is papery-thin, not the pastry pocket of Indian tradition. Ginger is a common spice. But the curry blends of Burma are much lighter than most of India's.

The spring ginger salad, on the other hand, has a vaguely Laotian note about it, but its shred of cabbage, sesame, peanuts, tomato, fried onion and dried shrimp is so exquisitely seasoned that its pedigree hardly matters.

The impromptu banquet continues, interrupted now and then by cell-phone reports and news flashes from CNN: "I heard bap bap bap," reports Chiu Mee Mee, another owner. "I cry in my heart. The monks have no weapons. The government has no brain!"

A wonderful pumpkin soup arrives, covered with a lid. Is it American-style pumpkin, I ask? No, it is Asian style, and a green-skinned pumpkin is summoned from the kitchen, a wedge of it revealing thick, carrot-y flesh. It is naturally sweet, but enhanced, it seems, with a little sugar and, when the lid is lifted, an aroma of garlic and onion and ginger wafts from the bowl. It is an extraordinarily tasty soup, the broth (made with water to maintain its vegetarian-ness) slightly sticky with shreds of pumpkin.

Delicate vegetable spring rolls are dipped in chili-lemon sauce. The samosa triangles head for the tamarind sauce. A turmeric-yellow heap of crispy onion rings arrives, and a fritterlike lentil cake, and then a cup of black tea that has been dosed with both condensed and evaporated milk, rendering it rich as hot chocolate.

The discussion turns to the old days in Burma, before it was renamed Myanmar by the military government: Rangoon's main cook had operated a large Chinese-Burmese restaurant 20 years ago in Mandalay. Gyaw herself had studied law and run a video store and coffee shop. Solomon had come with her mother at age 9 in 1990 when schools were shuttered after the last mass uprising.

A fried Burmese "won-ton" is offered, the shell stuffed with minced pork, then halved and oozing syrupy, sweet coconut milk.

After I leave, Mya Solomon calls to tell me she won't be around the next morning if I need to reach her. Rangoon would be closing for the day so they could travel to New York to protest on behalf of their friends far away and the families they would never forget.


Rangoon
112 N. Ninth St. 215-829-8939


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.