While Yangon's hot spots for best food and beverages have this year fell under the spotlight, the lists have _ unlike Myanmar's commercial capital _ become a bit tired. And, as the city continues its journey to become one of Asia's premiere tourist destinations, visitors will be expecting something more.
What these guides sometimes lack are the places with stories behind them _ stories that breathe life into the city's still-hidden eateries, whether it's a kerb-side cart or a hotel special. The saffron-speckled city may, manifestly, be a sleepy one, but Yangon is a dynamic mover with electric lifeblood. A spirit of protest and speaking out is endemic, and came with the 1988 generation, and the city maintains its forward-moving trajectory.
So, what does this mean for the traveller? As an expat who's lived in Yangon, I would say it means "throw away the itinerary". Connect with Myanmar, connect with Asian expats and connect with Western expats _ just make sure you connect. Go to the city without preconceived notions of what the guides tell you what's hot and what's not; Myanmar, for better or for worse, is unlike any other country in the world.
Here are three places _ whether you find yourself sweaty from hours on the Circle Train or renewed from a meditation at Shwedagon _ that still remain hidden from guidebooks, and might inspire you with a connection to the modernising city as it sheds its former name.
PREMIER: KING OF CURRIES
Pauksi _ an affectionate first name taken on by many a Myanmar, literally meaning "dumpling" _ served his first Irish coffee this year. Just around the corner from the country's flagship English newspaper, The Myanmar Times, a few Western employees in February taught Pauksi how to assuage loud, swearing journalists as deadlines approach.
With his older brother Ko Taik, Pauksi runs the food stall at Premier _ which bustles from about 10am to 2pm everyday. They serve a wide selection of curries, fresh Myanmar salads, including lapethoke _ a crispy traditional staple of tea leaves and beans _ and even some stir-fry if you're in the mood, such as soe myint kyaw, a plain but stomach-settling chicken and vegetable dish.
But it's undeniable that Premier's curry dishes are the best around town. And you don't need to know any Myanmar to order them _ to make things easy, all of Pauksi and Ko Taik's masterful culinary concoctions are displayed in a glass cabinet. All you have to do is point to the dishes that look appealing, and they'll be quickly served to you with a plate of rice, a simple vegetable-based soup of the day and some raw vegetables as a palatte cleanser.
For seafood lovers, the prawn curry is always fresh and the shells so small you don't need to worry about taking them off. The fish-cake curry is also especially delicious _ boneless, served spicy in a thin tomato-based stock _ while the fish curry is a personal favourite, fatty and laden in oil for flavour, served with the bones. For meat curries, their chicken is the best choice _ which they will shred upon request. It's light, and just perfectly overcooked. The pork and beef can tend, like in all Myanmar curry, to be a bit tough.
Make sure to pair your meat or fish curries with vegetable curries. While Pauksi and Ko Taik won't serve it from March to May because it's the hot season _ a traditional belief for good health _ the bamboo shoot curry is one of the most flavourful and robust curries you will ever try, the taste multifaceted and the texture neither too soft, nor too crisp. For those looking for something simpler, or during the hot season, the watercress is always a good choice.
On the corner of Bogyoke Aung San Road (Bogyoke Road) and Bo Aung Kyaw Street, identifiable by the yellow sign that reads "Premier", it is the closest food stall on Bogyoke Road to Bo Aung Kyaw Street, past the Asia Plaza Hotel. Opens early by 6am, begins to run out of food around 2pm and closes by 9pm.
KATSU: A TASTE OF TOKYO
After a long day of development deals falling through to South Korea and China, and with Incheon winning the long sought-after Hantharwaddy Airport tender, sometimes it seems like the Japanese in Myanmar just can't catch a break. And Japanese businessmen need somewhere to go at the end of a long day _ somewhere authentic to take solace in, where, like a Japanese version of Cheers, everyone knows your name.
That would be Katsu, which flanks the British Club on the Mingalar Taung Nyunt side (a predominantly Muslim township), across from the burgeoning scene at new expat-haven Bo Yar Nyunt _ probably explaining why it's remained largely undiscovered outside of the Japanese community. The owners are a Japanese husband and wife, who have done a fantastic job of spreading the word to their relocated compatriots.
Katsu offers everything you would find at a Japanese restaurant in Bangkok for about half the price. While ubiquitous Japanese starters such as croquettes, agedashi tofu (deep fried tofu is steeped in a sweet fish broth) and fermented octopus come cheap, Katsu doesn't sacrifice the flavour.
Delicious ramen and the restaurant's signature dish, Katsu's katsu don (pork cutlet over rice), come at about 200 baht and don't disappoint. Katsu does not, however, have broad sushi offerings if you're expecting it.
Katsu isn't just about the impressive food. While a city racked with electrical shortages, water rationing and few imported goods often poses an obstacle to most restaurateurs, the owners of Katsu have seamlessly relocated the interior of a busy Tokyo eatery.
There are no cracks, no cut corners, and no tack: Something incredibly hard to find in a Myanmar eatery. There's also a tastefully decorated upstairs floor, used for functions and, very often, birthday parties.
Meanwhile, the Japanese eatery just around the corner _ Ichiban Kan _ is twice the price and looks like the inside of a giant teak box, with the owner sitting at a long desk at the restaurant's helm.
Even more, the Japanese-speaking Myanmar staff are trained to a tee. In a city where waiters can often be children employed from pagodas nyi lay (little brothers), not particularly known for their good sanitation practices the waiting staff at Katsu are quick, knowledgeable andeven kindwhenitcomesto suggestions. I discovered my favourite type of Japanese plum wine one night with the staff's help.
Although Katsu has a myriad selection of delicious Japanese alcoholic drinks, one of its best features is that there is no corkage fee.
ALMOST CROWING: The chicken served by Yangon’s curry carts couldn’t be fresher.
Feel free to browse the adjoining City Mart supermarket for a range of wines, and bring your own bottle or two and the staff will attentively chill them for you without hesitation.
And if you do plan on a birthday party upstairs at Katsu, feel free to bring asmuch alcohol as you like from hard liquor to cordials to tins of beeras long as you're ordering Katsu's savoury fare, the staff won't so much as bat an eyelid.
No B-2, Aung San Stadium North Side, next to the City Mart. Opening hours are 11.30am-2pm and 5.30-10pm, and it is sometimes closed on Sundays. Call 01-381233 or 09-420088068. Cash only.
If this is your third stop, by now you've connected with local Myanmar at the curry stall and the Asian business community in little Tokyo alike now it's time for a slice of hidden grandeur.
Myanmar is expensive. Let's be blunt, here: Property prices are surging, cheap guesthouses start at about 1,300 baht per night, the only transport choice are taxi drivers and the government hikes up City Mart groceries to a frustrating level.
But for just 770 baht, you can enter a culinary havenfor at least the morning at the poorly advertised Inya Lake Hotel brunch. The food spans every continent from the omelette bar to carved suckling pig to a selection of dim sum and very rarely fails to impress. Especially good are the giant prawns and assorted shellfish.
With so much food to pick from, and none of it unappealing, ''buffet strategy'' has often been the subject of hot debate between friends spending Sundays at Inya.
Not to mention, the choice of alcohol is nearly unheard of for free flow. While most brunches only have champagne, the Inya Lake Hotel brunch offers the full monty: Beer, red and white wine, champagne and all champagne-related drinks. In three hours, you can certainly get your money's worth of libations.
The atmosphere is relaxing. Not yet haunted by hungry tourists, instead subdued aid workers or quiet families having lived in the city for a while, a jazz band keeps the atmosphere mellow while the tables offer a view of the serene Inya Lake.
The waiting staff, as those of an expensive hotel should be, are attentive enough to keep your champagne glass filled and your used plates cleared.
If you lounge around a little past 2pm, they're in no rush to kick you out too quickly, at least.
After a long week in Myanmar, this hidden brunch is the perfect avenue for blowing off some steam.
37 Kaba Aye Pagoda Road. Brunch begins at 11am and ends at 2pm. Call 01-9662866. Thehotel accepts cash or Visa/MasterCard.
TAKE IT FROM AN EXPAT
If you plan on spending a long time in Myanmar, join the Yangon Expat Connection. In fact, the YEC is where travel writers get their information. Most expats in Myanmar are part of this email list, and it encompasses anything from lodgings to housekeepers to, more importantly, social functions and new restaurants and bars. You can add yourself to the Google Group by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be careful with food during the monsoon season, which spans approximately the end of May to the end of September. With heavy rains, drain systems clog and the food at places that may look untrustworthy end up washed in dirty water. Local Myanmar will rarely, if ever, eat seafood at open-air restaurants during monsoon season. This certainly shouldn't stop your trip, but remain especially mindful of what you're eating.
Many seem to still be confused over whether ATMs work in Myanmar now. Since the start of the year, banks KBZ and CB have fortified their presence with functional ATMs that accept Visa and MasterCard, so there shouldn't be a problem withdrawing cash anymore. However, make sure to tell your issuing bank that you're going to Myanmar so that it doesn't freeze your card for security purposes. Of course, given Myanmar's infrastructural problems, there are still times when the ATM network will be down _ but it is generally reliable. And if you do plan on a cash exchange, nothing has changed _ make sure your dollars are in immaculate condition.
Caveat emptor: Many things in Myanmar are owned by government economic holdings groups. Yes, every sip of beer you take is supporting the Myanmar government. Yes, that hotel you're staying in has a room tax that goes directly to the government.
Yangon and Mandalay international airports offer a visa on arrival _ the only problem is that the relevant authorities have forgotten to include the operative word ''business''. The VoA service is for business visas only. All tourists must apply for tourist visas at their respective embassies.
For first-timers to Myanmar _ the ''ky'' consonant cluster in the Myanmar language sounds like a harsh ''ch'' _ so the local currency, kyat, is pronounced like ''chat'', while the word for fry, kyaw, is pronounced similarly to ''chaw''. If you're doing things right on your epicurean journey, you'll be using both words profusely.
HEART OF THE CITY: Clockwise from above, some of the iconic sites in the centre of Yangon: Traffic at Sule Pagoda; Yangon at night from a rooftop; you can’t miss Katsu with its signature lion.
MEAL WITH A VIEW: Yangon’s Inya Lake as it appears from the dining room at Inya Lake Hotel, which serves the city’s best hard-to-find brunch.
Latest stories in this category:
- A Cheese and ChileanWine-lovers affair
- Electric Sundaze, Rooftop Sunset, Beats, Booze and BBQ
- Discover more Value with THAI
- Happy Hour for Beer Lovers
- Extraordinary Hong Kong Holiday WISH
- Pattaya's 'Beverly Hills'
- Healthful weekday dining with a 'Salads & Sweets bar'
- Out with the old, ring in the new