Superstars of Modern Burmese Dining

6 December 2018

YANGON–Occupying a square of a low-rise but bustling outer-Yangon township, skirted by a busy bus stop and betel nut stall on one side and a teashop on another, is a new open-air diner where you can try not one but three food concepts created by the minds behind the city’s most popular upscale teashop, Rangoon Tea House.

On a Friday morning some six weeks after its opening, Htet Myet Oo, managing director of the parent company RTH Group, is refining the layout of his newest outlet, Pinlon Hawker Centre. He and his team now handle five modern Burmese food brands in nine locations in Yangon.

The Hawker Center serves high-quality Asian, Burmese and ethnic Myanmar dishes in a comfortable, modern setting. The industrial-style interior design and seating spreads outdoors on Pinlon Street in North Dagon, which is described by Htet as “an up-and-coming middle-class area.” Here are two entirely new and exciting food brands—Pinlon Kyay Oh, serving noodle soup, and Nam Su, focusing on the pounded, steamed and mashed delights of northern Shan State. It’s a far cry from the many international franchises that are popping up in Yangon and seem determined to make Myanmar’s commercial capital look and taste like every other Asian city.

This is the first restaurant RTH Group has built from scratch. Htet’s hope is that it will become a platform for him to experiment with new food brands before launching them on a larger scale.

“We’re trying to add more layers to the concept. The idea with this place is that we’ll run different concepts through it and if they work then we can open it elsewhere,” Htet said.

Pinlon Hawker Centre, RTH Group’s latest venture opened in North Dagon in late September. / Supplied

Today, he is working on a plan to incorporate food stalls along the perimeter of Pinlon Hawker Centre next to the sidewalk. By adding outdoor seating, he hopes to reach out to people and convince them to try the product he has been crafting over four years.

The talk of the town when he first opened Rangoon Tea House in 2014, Htet and his fiancé Isabella Sway-Tin, who joined the business a few months later, have gone on to establish no fewer than eight more outlets and a catering business. Now, in addition to Rangoon Tea House, there are five Mr. Woks serving “Asian fast food,” two Buthee curry houses and the new Pinlon Hawker Centre. In 2016, Htet was listed on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list and he and Isabella collectively won KBZ Entrepreneur of the Year 2018 as awarded by Myanmore.

“We opened [Rangoon Tea House] to relatively low expectations; we didn’t really know what we were doing or how we were doing it. I suppose it was more fun back then, when you knew nothing and there weren’t many things to disappoint you,” said Htet, sitting at a bench at Pinlon Hawker Centre.

Htet and his team were on the receiving end of much criticism—as well as praise—after the opening of his first venture. Many in Yangon couldn’t accept that everyday Burmese fare would be sold with such a price tag and they complained about the location and lack of parking among other things.

Whether it was the intention all along or they simply lucked out, today the market embraces Rangoon Tea House’s concept and pricing. Through 12 menu evolutions, the price range hasn’t changed over the years, while restaurant prices across Yangon have risen, leaving Rangoon Tea House in a comfortable mid-range position with a packed house for lunch and dinner every day of the week.

“We persevered with the quality of food that we thought the customers should be receiving and after four years our prices stayed the same but the market has changed,” Htet said.

As well as having thick skin and a level of stubbornness, Htet said what they have achieved comes from being able to come up with fresh ideas and concepts which are adjusted and adapted constantly to suit the changing market and their target customer base.

“It’s the ability to not take things personally—people will always have things to say about your business and about your vision, but you have to understand that you believe in your vision for a reason and always go back to that. That’s been, I think, the most important for us,” he said.

Once Rangoon Tea House was off the ground, Mr. Wok followed in 2016. The flaming wok-fried noodles and rice have been a big hit among Yangonites and the fifth branch just opened at Pinlon Hawker Centre.

Then last year, Buthee, with a country curry house theme, opened on Bogalayzay Street in downtown Yangon. Recently, Htet and Isabella decided to shut the doors for a few days to make some adjustments. Table service has replaced the point-and-choose order method, the décor has been adjusted and new dishes added to the menu. Why? Htet said the issue comes back to the balancing act that he and his team are constantly working on—creating a space where everyone feels comfortable and welcome to enjoy the best Myanmar dishes prepared to a high standard. They want to quell impressions that Buthee is expensive or too high class or for a lunch-time curry. This balancing act is an issue across all the RTH Group outlets.

“To tell you the truth, we’re still trying to find that balance.”

Exterior of Rangoon Tea House which opened in 2014 on Pansodan Street in downtown Yangon. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

Now 28 years old, Htet was born in Myanmar and moved to the UK with his family when he was 4 years old. He grew up there and returned to Yangon soon after finishing his economics degree in London. He knew he wanted to start his own business and he had a passion for food—it seemed inevitable that it would be a restaurant.

Today, food ideas, restaurant themes and designing menus are the easy part of the job for Htet. He says the food served is only as good as the people creating it, and handling a team of around 200 staff and 12 managers is no easy task. But he and Isabella have a huge combined determination and an infallible hunger to create more food brands. They have broadened their reach across Yangon and have ambitions abroad too—one of their long-term visions is to take Burmese fare overseas through pop-ups across the continent and beyond. Excitingly, if all goes to plan, 2019 might even see a second Rangoon Tea House opening somewhere in “uptown” Yangon.

“What keeps us on our toes is that we know there is so much further to go. I think the day you feel like you’re on the summit is the day you should probably pack it in,” Htet said.

At the end of the day, ahead of everything else comes the flavor of the food Htet and his team serve to diners every day. “The best designers are always about function before aesthetics. We try to put the taste first and the aesthetics second. I don’t care whether it’s served on a golden platter, it should taste nice first.”