From outside, the restaurant does not seem like much, and is even sheltered by some trees when approaching from the south on Anderson Avenue. Most people might read the awning and pass by unaware of the treasures inside, as "Inle Lake" probably does not register in the minds of many. Word of mouth is going to have to keep this place going. The good news is that the chef and food inside are legitimate and a greatly welcomed piece in the world cuisine puzzle here.
I am writing a book about the Bay of Bengal and have had the pleasure of visiting Myanmar the past two winters doing research and exploring the amazing country. Last year I spent some time away from research in Shan State and Inle Lake, and found the food to be some of if not the best in the country. When word got to me about a Burmese restaurant specializing in Shan foods in Bergen County, New Jersey, I boarded the first NJ Transit bus I could and found myself a table.
I was positively giddy when the menu was put down in front of us, so many delicious temptations laid before our eyes. It took quite a long time to narrow down everything I wanted into the four selections we made. While we decided, I enjoyed the Inle salty plum juice ($3.99, below), a carbonated beverage that brings back very good memories.
Popular in many regions of Myanmar, the laphet thoke/Burmese tea leaf salad ($9.99, below two photos) here is by the far the best version I have ever had outside of the country. Over there when ordered, a shop owner will pick ingredients from many plastic jugs and bowls and mix it fresh for you, sometimes right in front of you while you wait. I enjoy the fact that they bring over a delectable plate full of individual ingredients here and mix it right before you eat.
Once fully mixed, you are free to add as much preserved garlic and hot pepper in as you wish to create the kick desired. The source of these fermented tea leaves needs to be closely guarded, as they are quite a few steps above anything else created in New York since I have lived here, including the delicious version that used to be made by the long-closed Burmese Cafe on Roosevelt Avenue. Peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, tomatoes, lettuce, lemon, and crispy fried garlic all combine with the tea leaves to create not only a complex flavor, but one of the most complex texture palates in one dish.
Our other appetizer was the Inle kin paung kyaw ($4.99, below), fritters of chicken and green onion that keep a spongy quality. Versions of this are all over the map in texture, sometimes on the opposite end and very crispy. The homemade "Marie Rose"sauce should be used sparingly as not to overwhelm the subtle tastes within.
In the last two years in Myanmar, I must have sat down for twenty bowls of Shan noodles ($8.99, below), which are also popular throughout the country. It is definitely one of my favorite dishes and always appears simple despite being anything but. The version here has longer noodles than you might find over there, and is presented fully put together. It is actually quite beautiful, and begs to be covered with the red pepper and pickled vegetables it comes with.
Sticking to the Shan theme, we were attracted to the Shan mala ($11.99, below), which is the only item on the menu that includes three red peppers behind it, serving as warning. As if that was not enough, the waitress also told us the same story and made sure we were prepared for the heat. The plate comes with a choice of meat, and the pork we ordered was slightly dry and tough, and would be changed to beef the next time ordered. The sauce and peppercorns made sure the focus was not on the cut of meat though, and our mouths and tongues were thoroughly numbed in the process of eating the dish. Burmese food is not as spicy as its neighbors in Thailand or India, so the top of the heat chart is not quite as high as it can be, so give the mala a try even if you might be initially afraid.
Arriving after we were already bursting was a small plate of complimentary beef curry (below) for our sampling pleasure. Curries in Myanmar tend both ways but this one definitely veers towards India rather than the coconut milk curries of Thailand.
Good things are happening here and great things are possible with some more time. I hope the "Asian fusion" theme never really catches on here and Burmese tastes grab hold in Cliffside Park. This menu is rich and deep, and for those of us that love the cuisine, does not need to be altered.