For Creative Loafing Atlanta. March 2017.
From the outside, Royal Myanmar Cuisine looks like nothing more than a drive-through converted into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, standing by itself in a quiet commercial plaza with a strip club, a liquor store and a few questionable-looking eateries. The interior of the former Crazy Wings is also very plain, with tiled floors, red counters, several televisions and casual seating for 20. But the reason to come here is not the ambiance; it’s the food, and the people who make it.
Zo Mawi, who goes by “Aa,” is a soft-spoken and petite woman with dark hair and a shy smile. Born and raised in the Chin region of Myanmar (also known as Burma), Mawi is the youngest of eight children. Her father died when she was only three months old. As the country underwent decades of war and recession, most men, like Mawi’s brothers, ended up migrating to other countries in search of employment, generally hired into blue-collar, often undocumented laborer positions in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. Left behind to take care of all her nieces and nephews, whose parents had either moved or passed away, Mawi managed to finish high school in the capital of Yangon before immigrating as a refugee to Guam, and then to the United States.
Upon arrival, Mawi made her way to Clarkston through a refugee resettlement program, took ESL classes, enrolled in Georgia Perimeter College (though she had to drop out due to family responsibilities) and worked with her brother at a sushi bar. She eventually worked her way up to managing a sushi franchise inside a Fresh Market store. Since 2001, Mawi has not only struggled to make her new home halfway across the world, but has done so while raising her late brother’s children. Now that they are off to college, she can finally do something she’s dreamt of since she was a young girl back in Myanmar: start her own business.
Through mutual friends, Mawi was introduced to Nyan Aung, another Burmese refugee who came to Indianapolis in 2015 via Malaysia. Together, the two friends decided to open one of metro Atlanta’s only Burmese restaurants. Since most of Georgia’s Burmese community lives in Clarkston, the location made sense. Aung’s mother, who once had a restaurant in Yangon, trained the duo for a few months and provided her own recipes for their new venture.
Burmese cuisine carries influences from India, China and Thailand. “People are familiar with Asian noodles, but ours is very different and delicious!” says Mawi. “We are also the only ones that serve tea leaf salad.” She’s referring to a classic Burmese dish, known locally as lah pet thoke: a mixture of fermented green tea leaves, peanuts, fried garlic, dried shrimp and sesame seeds ($7.50 at Royal Myanmar). The result is a distinctive balance of four primary flavors — sour, salty, spicy and bitter — that forms the backbone of most traditional Burmese meals.
There are 15 staples on the bilingual picture menus, most of which will be familiar to both Burmese people and those who have traveled to Myanmar. All are generously portioned and highly affordable. The Myanmar noodle salad ($7) made with wheat noodles, chicken and chickpea powder and served in a spicy broth, is what Mawi recommends to first timers. Burmese chicken coconut soup ($6.99) is another popular option: rich and creamy with wheat noodles, coconut milk, yellow dal and plenty of onion, garlic and spices for flavor. My personal favorite is palata ($6.50), a crispy, flaky, buttery puffed flatbread paired with a fragrant dipping sauce of yellow lentils and fried shallots. That dish alone makes the drive to Clarkston worth it.
Though Burmese food tends to be very spicy, Mawi will ask your preference before cooking. There is fish sauce and jars of chili flakes on the table in case you need an extra kick. She’s also quite generous in giving out samples.
“It is very difficult for the Burmese people to open businesses,” Mawi confides. “We don’t speak English, know the licensing laws, or have money to invest.” Mawi and Aung borrowed cash from their families to open Royal Myanmar in October of last year. It’s only the two of them now, working six days a week — cooking, serving and managing all aspects of the business. But they’re pleased with the progress they’ve made, and the little piece of home they’ve brought to the neighborhood.
“I am happy when I see new customers enjoying my food,” Mawi says with a smile. Then she returns to the kitchen, ready to prepare the next order.
~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. March 2017.