In 2013 I had the pleasure of exploring Jackson Heights with Suketu Mehta a journalism professor at New York University who grew up in the neighborhood. Back in his day, many local businesses were Gujarati, including an appliance shop that Mehta said was run by two gents named “Raj.” “Indian immigrants coming to New York would visit two places, the Statue of Liberty and Raj and Raj.”
Mehta will be pleased to learn that visitors to Jackson Heights still visit the Statue of Liberty, but some like the young couple I met as I was emerging from COVID quarantine, visit Yun Cafe first.
“This tastes just like back home, the young man,” said of the homestyle Burmese cuisine made by Tin Ko Naing and Thidar Kyaw and the restaurant’s namesake, their daughter, Yun. (Sadly I was not able to tell them if the Statue of Liberty was open and instead recommended a Staten Island Ferry ride and a Sri Lankan food outing.)
My new friends were having some chicken soup and a mixture of laphet thoke—the classic tea leaf salad—and gin thoke, which features fermented ginger. Last I checked there were more than a dozen of thoke on the menu of the restaurant in the Jackson Heights subway station, including kaut swe thoke (a melange of noodles, potatoes, and curried chicken) pin le sar thoke, a seafood salad.
I’m slowly working my way through the thoke roster, but that day I wanted to try the shaut thee thoke or lemon salad, since I’d been hearing great things about it.
Lemon features prominently in shaut thee thoke, but like many Burmese salads, it’s a cavalcade of flavors, crunchy dried shrimp, sweet fried onions, insistently spicy green chili, raw garlic and pungent shrimp paste.
“It’s my family’s favorite,” Yun said when I told her how much I loved the dish. It’s also the epitome of the Burmese culinary concept “chin ngan sat,” or “sour salty spicy.”
I suppose it’s also a good way to test one’s sense of taste and smell after a bout with COVID. I wonder what other delicious secrets lurk among many other thoke I have yet to try.
Yun Café & Asian Mart, 73-05 37th Rd., Store #2, 646-920-7551