SAN FRANCISCO—Restaurants can be unofficial cultural embassies for their countries. Even the smallest towns in America now have Thai restaurants, and the pho and salad rolls of Vietnam are ubiquitous as well. Other Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia and Indonesia are becoming more represented in the overseas restaurant business. But the rich and varied cuisine of Burma has had little exposure, despite the diaspora of refugees, exiles and immigrants.
An exception is the critically acclaimed Burma Superstar, with a flagship restaurant on San Francisco’s multicultural Clement Street and branches in Oakland and Alameda. Desmond Htunlin and his wife Jocelyn Lee are co-owners, working to turn mohinga and lapet thoke into California “foodie” favorites. Edith Mirante of Project Maje, which documents human rights and environmental issues in Burma, interviewed Desmond Htunlin for The Irrawaddy.
Question: When did you first come to the United States, and what brought you and your family here?
Answer: My family came to San Francisco in 1979. I think our dream was very similar to the dream of others who have come to this country from all over the world: to turn hard work into a better life for our family. Although there was much about Burma they loved, at that time hard work just wasn’t translating into the effect of success and prosperity. It was an incredibly difficult and daring decision on their part—we arrived as a family of six in San Francisco with less than $200 and limited English, and the journey here was a tough one. But those obstacles are a testament to the power of the American dream: that my parents were willing to dare and to risk in order to bring us here. I’m very proud of them and grateful to them for that courage, and I certainly hope, with everything I’ve been a part of, that I’m doing my part to validate their decision.
Q: What are the main reasons for your success in the competitive restaurant business?
A: In our restaurants, my wife Joycelyn and I believe that people come first. We’re meticulous about Burmese cuisine, and adapting it to local tastes, about choosing designs and locations and décor, but all of them are secondary to our commitment to our employees, customers and communities. We provide health care and benefits to all our staff, and we keep their working environment an enjoyable and positive place to work.
Hospitality to guests is an important part of Burmese culture, and we try to replicate that warm welcome that they would receive in Burma. It not only makes what we provide more authentic, but our customers remember us as a positive overall experience in a great environment, in addition to remembering how much they enjoyed the food itself.
We also recognize the importance of investing to the communities we belong to. We sponsor local library branches, award college scholarships to local students and provide workforce development for refugees and other recent immigrants. To share in this way doesn’t just tighten our bonds with the community; it gives our employees a lot of pride to be involved in something greater than we are as a part of their work.
Q: Unlike other immigrants in the United States, few refugees or exiles from Burma have opened restaurants. Many work making Japanese sushi instead of food from their homeland. Why do you think that happened?
A: People often feel most comfortable with what’s familiar to them. Restaurant-goers in San Francisco, for example, are familiar with sushi, and with various types of Chinese cuisine, but not with Burmese cuisine or even the country of Burma. So I think some entrepreneurs worry that there just isn’t enough of a market for an unfamiliar type of cuisine. It’s a very, very competitive industry, and in those circumstances it’s understandable that maybe some restaurateurs decided to take a safer course. The good news is that we are an example of Burmese cuisine succeeding, and we’ve helped more San Franciscans become comfortable with it. Over time maybe this will make it easier for new Burmese restaurants to flourish, with a menu that people are eager to try. I’d be happy to give my advice on the challenges of a Burmese restaurant to anyone looking to enter the industry.
Q: How did Burma Superstar get its name?
A: When we started, we were the only Burmese restaurant in America, as far as we knew. People in the US know very little about Burma, but with its wonderful people, culture, food, art and amazing natural beauty, we think it could be the superstar of Asia. Now we see other Burmese restaurants opening around us, and we have hour-long lines outside our own doors, and we feel proud that maybe the name of our country means more to the people here than it did when we opened.
Q: Burma Superstar has a picture of the Buddha as a symbol. How was that image chosen?
A: Joycelyn, friends and I put a lot of thought into designing and choosing a symbol that can represent us well. The laughing Buddha represents a modern school of Buddhist thought that says the good life is indeed attainable in this world. He has become the symbol of ideals that we want to live by: cheerfulness, mastery of self, purposefulness, a deep and earnest commitment to the welfare of others, and enlightened awareness. We strive to attain those ideals, but we also want to share our enjoyment of the good life as we see it, and as we can provide it to our customers and share it with each other.
Q: Burma Superstar has always been “politically correct” in support for democracy. Do you think that affected your business?
A: What we strive to be is responsive to the needs of others, and to work in their best interests. That of course extends to our employees and our customers, but also to the Burmese people. It’s not a business-based decision, it’s a moral decision, so the morality of our actions is more important than the business consequences. We have an unusual ability at Burma Superstar to be a window into the entire country of Burma, a part of which is to call attention to the challenges faced by the people there. It’s been a positive moral and business experience to make that a part of what we do, instead of just serving someone a plate of food.
Q: You have given support to the International Rescue Committee. Why did you select that charity?
A: Originally, the International Rescue Committee actually approached us. So when I was approached to consider hiring from the Burmese refugee population, and work on a training program, it was a welcome opportunity to give back. It was definitely a challenge, as many refugees have limited English and little work experience, especially if they hail from the more rural areas. We started training at the beginning with some of them, from English to knife skills to local health standards. Now we’ve helped more than 20 refugees find jobs in our family of restaurants and elsewhere. It’s been extremely rewarding to see many people who arrived in circumstances similar to my family’s as they take control of their futures and create more independent lives for themselves and their families.
Q: What is your advice for the restaurants in Burma about how can they be improved?
A: Joycelyn and I believe that there are all kinds of opportunities to focus on quality and customers. Restaurants need to look at who their target customer is and provide the environment that will bring that customer inside. They need to provide a clean, comfortable place to have an enjoyable overall experience.
Restaurants everywhere also need staff that are passionate about their work. That means paying them a good wage and giving them a positive work environment. Customers pick up on the positivity of a restaurant, even if they don’t realize it, and it brings something into their lives that they will want to keep there.
Q: Do you have any plans to do business in Burma?
A: While I don’t have any immediate plans to open restaurants in Burma, I am interested in business ventures that include corporate social responsibility, environmental protection and transparency in business operations. I am a founding board member of the San Francisco-based USA Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and the San Francisco-Yangon Sister City initiative, both of which are aimed at strengthening the ties between the two countries. There is a great deal we can learn from each other, so we are looking to be a vehicle for cultural, educational, and community exchanges. But we also want to be a bridge for business knowledge between two countries that could benefit greatly from each other as one looks for unique business opportunities and the other for responsible economic development.
Q: There is a Shan noodle dish on the menu at Burma Superstar. Are there influences from other ethnic nationalities in the food you serve?
A: We have quite a bit of staff from Chin State and Shan State, so naturally, our cooks from Chin State and Shan State would spin it a little to our dishes.
Q: What are the most popular dishes at Burma Superstar?
A: Tea leaf salad, samosa soup and our curries are delicious.
Q: How have you adapted Burmese cuisine to present it to Americans?
A: Our customers generally are just beginning to become familiar with Burmese cuisine, so our servers have to be more knowledgeable about the ingredients and the dishes than they might at another type of ethnic food restaurant. For example, when we serve our tea leaf salad, we explain each of the ingredients to the diner, and then combine them right there at the table so they can see the culinary design behind the dish. Giving our customers fresh produce, organic when possible, something that is a combination of Burmese, Shan and Chin, is how we “adapt” the cuisine to their taste.
Q: What are your own personal favorite Burmese foods?
A: Joycelyn and I enjoy anything prepared with shrimp paste and fish sauce, but it is unfortunately not always well received by the American palate. We can eat a bowl of mohinga every day.