If kale salad is — or was, circa 2010 — the quintessential Bay Area dish, then Teni East Kitchen's version proves, once again, that the love our cooks have for the omnipresent leafy green knows no ethnic or cultural bounds. How else do you explain the use of kale in the restaurant's Burmese fermented tea leaf salad — despite the unlikelihood of ever encountering the vegetable in Myanmar proper?
Located in the Temescal District's 40th Street corridor, Teni East Kitchen is also a testament to how far Burmese food has come in terms of mainstream acceptance here in the Bay. In a recent article exploring the history of the Bay Area's Burmese restaurant boom, the San Francisco Chronicle's Jonathan Kauffman recounted how, starting in the early- to mid-Aughts, the unprecedented success of Burma Superstar's original San Francisco location paved the way for a slew of other popular Burmese restaurants. In that way, Bay Area food enthusiasts developed an easy familiarity with a lineup of dishes — tea leaf salad, samusa soup, and so forth — that the majority of American diners still haven't even heard of.
Teni East Kitchen is a descendent of that legacy: Chef-owner Tiyo Shibabaw, who is of Ethiopian descent, had never eaten Burmese food prior to getting into the restaurant business ten years ago — as a front-of-house manager at the two East Bay branches of Burma Superstar. Open for about two months, Shibabaw's first restaurant of her own is one of those places you couldn't imagine existing anywhere else, but that makes total sense in the Bay Area: It's a Cal-Burmese restaurant with an Ethiopian name. ("Teni" is Shibabaw's mother's name.)
Shibabaw stressed that Teni East Kitchen is more of a Southeast Asian restaurant than it is strictly a Burmese one. The menu draws from a variety of influences: Thai, Indian, and even a bit of Ethiopian.
Like Burma Superstar, Teni distinguishes itself from other more "traditional" Burmese restaurants with its pretty plating aesthetics, higher-than-average prices, and stylish, elegant setting — though the cavernous, wide-open space is less sleek, modern minimalism and more old-timey-saloon. But perhaps the biggest influence that Shibabaw's former employer has had is in her interpretations of classic Burmese dishes, which skew toward the American palate, toning down some of the cuisine's funkier, more aggressive flavors. And, more than at any other restaurant I've eaten at in the Bay Area, she offers a distinctly Californian version of Burmese cooking, taking even more liberties with her recipes than Burma Superstar, which many native Burmese might argue is a very Americanized restaurant.
No dish better exemplifies this approach than that tea leaf kale salad. I'll admit that when I first heard that Shibabaw was putting kale in her tea leaf salad, I was deeply skeptical. It seemed like the latest in a long series of missteps in which Bay Area chefs would, for the sake of being "local," add kale to dishes where it didn't make a lick of sense. (I could dedicate an entire essay to all the kale Caesar salads and kale coleslaws I have hated.) But Teni's tea leaf salad was otherwise quite traditional : dark-green sludge of fermented tea leaves presented alongside the usual panoply of crunchy seeds and nuts, everything mixed together tableside. The key was Shibabaw's use of tender baby kale leaves, which added a slight bitter note that ended up enhancing the pungent flavor of the tea leaves. I much preferred it to other Americanized versions that dilute that tea-leaf funk with the bland, watery crunch of romaine lettuce. It's a salad I would happily order again.
A pea shoot salad featuring a similar assortment of nuts and seeds was just as compelling, both in terms of texture and flavor. Served in their raw state, the pea shoots had a refreshing, herbaceous quality. And the tangy, Caesar-like dressing had an extra jolt of fish-sauce umami that really set it apart.
Other appetizer offerings were similar in the liberties they took in combining and riffing off of various Asian food traditions, though the core of each dish tended to be fairly traditional. One highlight is the restaurant's take on the kind of sticky, spicy-sweet fried chicken wings that you can find at any number of Southeast Asian restaurants. Shibabaw's version showcases the restaurant's addictive house-made balachaung, a Burmese chili oil that's more fruity-hot than hot-hot. She tosses the wings in a mixture of balachaung and tamarind sauce, and the end result was somewhat reminiscent of Korean fried chicken.
The thin-wrappered samosas, on the other hand, were neither strictly Burmese nor Indian, but something new: sweet potato samosas, whose sweetness was nicely balanced by an undercurrent of curry spice. And the roti were an especially flaky and crisp-edged version of the kind of pan-fried flatbread that you'll find at Burmese, Malaysian, and Singaporean restaurants.For the sake of being vegetarian-friendly, Teni serves the appetizer version of its roti with a lentil curry — loaded with so many corn kernels that I found it to be way too sweet — instead of the more typical chicken curry dipping sauce.
Next time, I'd opt instead for a side order of roti to eat with one of various curries that dominate the entrée section of the menu. Of these, I'd skip the coconut shrimp curry, which featured mushy shrimp and lacked chili heat, or any other pronounced flavor besides the sweetness of the coconut milk. Instead, try the rich beef cheek curry, which was intensely savory in a way that was similar to Indonesian beef randang — and, as Shibabaw later pointed out, not unlike an Ethiopian wat. My only complaint: While the beef was as wonderfully tender as you would expect from slow-cooked cheeks, the portion of meat was skimpy.
My favorite entrée wasn't a curry at all but rather a cumin pork belly stir-fry that was vaguely Thai-style: tender, well-charred slices of belly served in a dark, peppery sauce and loaded with basil and caramelized onions.
For now, dessert is limited to a small selection of Mitchell's ice cream — the San Francisco ice cream parlor's Asian-skewing flavors, mainly. If you've had it, you know: It's good ice cream. But depending on the flavor, it's priced as high as $7 for a waffle cone. Too rich for my blood.
Word about Teni is trickling out, but during my visits the dining room was half-empty, and I couldn't help thinking about the unspeakably long lines of bearded and skinny-jeaned folk you can spot on the sidewalk outside the Temescal branch of Burma Superstar any night of the week. That seems silly: Teni isn't a perfect restaurant, but I found the food to be better and more interesting than anything I ate during my last few visits to the mothership. The atmosphere is no less stylish. The beer-and-wine permit should come through any day now, and eventually, Shibabaw wants to have a full liquor license — at which point there will be more than one Burmese restaurant in town serving elegant, Southeast Asian-inspired cocktails.
I think what I'm saying is: We are lucky to have so many distinct expressions of Burmese cuisine in the East Bay. Give Teni East Kitchen's uniquely Californian interpretation a try. You may find yourself adding it to your regular rotation.