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*** 1/2
Out of a possible five
Ryan DuVall | The Journal Gazette

Burmese restaurant surprises

Burmese food has been difficult for me to embrace.

Although I am always game for something different, what little of it I have been exposed to has not wowed me. And when I strolled into Akaungzarr Asian Restaurant, I wasn’t expecting it to change my stance.

But this little, way-off-the-beaten-path place in a former pancake house on Decatur Road not only did that, but it also introduced me to some dishes with flavors I have never had before and that I must have again.

Akaungzarr is run by a Burmese family – the husband handling the service side and the wife in the kitchen – and is kind of a hangout of sorts. There is no real atmosphere, and the big pool table in the middle of the dining room played host to a gaggle of young Burmese gentlemen during each of my visits.

The TV was blaring as I walked in both times, but the owners turned it down and made sure my party was comfortable both times. The owner also was quite helpful in explaining the many unique offerings, and he made suggestions when appropriate.

Akaungzarr, like many Burmese places in the area, offers Thai as well as Burmese, so there was pad Thai, tom yum and papaya salad on the menu.

But I steered clear of most of those and went for the unique Burmese dishes.

The best Burmese dish I had was the Moke Hin Khar, or “snack soup.” This bright red bowl of soup is made with fish paste, which gives it a rich, salty flavor. It contained angel hair rice noodles, onions, garlic, chili, lemon grass, chunks of fish, fish sauce, ginger, pepper and – a never-before-enjoyed ingredient – pith of the banana stem.

The soup had a tasty, little crispy fried yellow bean cake on top, a lot of cilantro and fresh lime to squeeze over it. It was a little oily, but the banana stems were great. They were sort of like hearts of palm, only more fibrous and kind of grainy when chewed up. But they added a nice crunchy element to the soup, which I enjoyed more with each spoonful. By the end, I was ready for a second bowl.

The O Cut was the Burmese dish the owner suggested first, and that was understandable because it was pretty tame.

Your choice of meat – I chose chicken – is stir-fried with onion, garlic, chiles, lemongrass, galangal, green peppers and herbs and served with steamed rice. I was asked whether spicy was OK and I agreed, and though it wasn’t overly spicy, the flavors worked, and I wished it hadn’t been such a small serving.

The best thing I ate at Akaungzarr was an appetizer, and it will bring me back. The Yum Woo Sen was a warm Thai noodle salad made with thin, clear bean thread (or glass) noodles with either ground chicken or shrimp – I wisely chose shrimp – onions, hot peppers and tomatoes dressed with fish sauce and fresh lime juice and topped with cilantro and peanuts. It was amazing.

The brightness of the lime offset the sweet, succulent shrimp, the tomatoes gave it acidity and a little more sweetness, the chiles added heat, the fish sauce served as the salt and the nuts gave it crunch. It was heavily dressed so a spoon would not be a bad idea, because you will want to scoop up every bite of this dish.

The samusas were also a fabulous way to start my meals. These little dough pockets filled with cubed potato and green onions are Indian in origin, but Akaungzarr did them justice. They came with a tasty red sauce that looked like ketchup but with a lot more heat.

The appetizer that surprised me most was the Wah Thar Toke Thoe, which was simply described on the menu as “steamed pork” with hot and sweet and sour sauces. The surprise was that the pork was, in fact, chitlins. The intestines were good, however – mild, chewy, with a little meat on several pieces – and the sauces worked well with them. By my second visit, the word “intestines” had been hand-written on the menu to avoid future surprises.

Another odd dish, this one from Thailand, that grew on me was the Lad Nar. A bowl of sticky, gelatinous soup filled with broccoli shavings, chicken and two quail eggs was a bit sweet and nicely accented with a heavy dose of black pepper. The texture was really weird at first, but it loosened up as it cooled and, eventually, I dug in and didn’t look back.

The Pad Z-ew was the best of the Thai offerings. These “drunken noodles” of sorts had wide, stir-fried flat rice noodles, with shaved broccoli, carrots and egg scrambled in. I had mine with chicken and it was enjoyable.

The final surprise – and another good one – at Akaungzarr came with dessert, which I wasn’t expecting the restaurant to offer.

The Ginn Tok was a savory meal-ender made with deep-fried dry beans mixed with pickled ginger, pickled tea leaves, tomatoes and other spices. It was crunchy and nutty and had a very aggressive sort of mint-like tea flavor. It was not sweet at all, but, again, I could not stop eating it because its aroma was so enticing and its flavor was so interesting.

When I asked the owner about the dessert, he said it was meant to help settle the stomach after a big Burmese meal.

And it did just that. I will have to have it next time I go to Akaungzarr, which will likely be soon because it has opened my eyes and my stomach to Burmese food unlike any I have had before.

Restaurant: Akaungzarr Asian Restaurant

Address: 5205 Decatur Road

Phone: 755-0149

Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Cuisine: Burmese-Thai

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes, but no menu

Menu: Samusas ($3.99), steamed pork intestines ($5.99), Yum Woo Sen ($5.99), Moke Hin Kar ($ 3.99), Lad Nar ($5.49), O Cut ($5.99), Pad Z-ew ($5.99), Ginn Tok ($4.99)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 max.), service: * (1 max.)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.