STANTON, Calif.—Nestled within a busy mini mall at the intersection of Katella and Knott is the only restaurant in Orange County where a hungry customer can experience the art of Burmese cuisine: Irrawaddy Taste of Burma.
The family owned and operated restaurant, established in 2016, is founded on serving its patrons with dishes made from scratch using fresh ingredients—a requirement to maintain the integrity of long-standing recipes created by chef and co-owner Banny Hong.
“There were so many restaurants with so many cultures with many foods in Orange County,” Hong told The Epoch Times. “I thought why we don’t have any Burmese food restaurants here?”
With hints of flavors, textures, and inspirations from all over Southeast Asia, Hong is confident that there is no taste quite like Burmese food.
With most Burmese food restaurants in California located in the Bay area, followed by four in Los Angeles, Irrawaddy Taste of Burma is the place where Orange County food lovers can enjoy award-winning dishes unlike any other.
“Burmese food is very unique in its ingredients and cooking process,” Hong said.
“The dishes are not overly spiced, sweetness mostly comes from coconut [not sugar], and our ingredients are carefully processed in the restaurant after their journey from Burma.”
One such dish is the Green Tea Salad. The savory appetizer requires a lengthy preparation process, mainly due to the tea leaves traveling by ship from Burma, also known as Myanmar, to Los Angeles.
“As the tea leaves are from Burma, we carefully boil the leaves and dry them before mixing our salads,” Hong shared.
“We make this food from our hearts here. We do not need to know you to make you good food; it is our responsibility to do so.”
Aside from the Burmese tea leaves, the salad is packed with the pleasant crunch of romaine lettuce, peanuts, and sesame seeds topped with zesty fried garlic and lime tea leaf dressing.
Despite the challenges of the dish, Hong finds salads to be one of his favorite things to make. His drive to learn and overcome obstacles not many Westerners have faced are just some of the characteristics that strengthen his gift for cooking.
The Journey to America
Formerly from Kachin State in the nation of Burma, Hong remembers immigrating to the United States in 1987 under dire circumstances soon after graduating university with a degree in economics.
As local insurgent groups in Hong’s hometown demanded payments from residents for equipment and weapons, the Burmese Army received intelligence of this and banned such payments, leaving residents caught in the middle of warring parties.
“People were being killed by both the army and the insurgents,” Hong said. “When my family and neighborhood did not pay the tax as requested by the government, the insurgent group used bombs that destroyed homes and damaged our house.”
“I did not want to leave Burma, but after this it was time to go,” he said.
After the explosions that rocked Hong’s life, he immigrated to the United States, flying into Seattle with just $60 in his pocket. This soon became $20 after taxi fares, but that did not deter him from feeling grateful for his new home.
“When I got off the plane here, the people were so welcoming in the immigration office,” Hong recalled upon his first impression of the United States.
“I remembered almost crying because of it.”
After settling in the Los Angeles area, Hong’s new country would give him a platform to exercise his gifts not only in business, but also in the kitchen.
After learning how to cook from his father at an early age, he worked various jobs in his family’s general store. Upon his arrival in the U.S., Hong worked in family operated kitchens specializing in Asian dishes, but not before working his first American job at McDonalds.
“McDonalds was a great environment which I enjoyed working in,” said Hong. “I loved it but eventually began cooking in the kitchens of my sister’s Japanese food restaurants in 1990 in Canoga Park.”
A Taste to Remember
Upon walking into Taste of Burma, it is impossible to not notice the walls adored with beautiful images of Hong’s native Myanmar. In the back near the swinging kitchen door is a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s former democratic leader who has repeatedly been placed under house arrest by the nation’s military dictatorships, most recently in 2021.
Hong’s wife Roseanne is quick to greet customers and make them feel welcomed at one of the restaurant’s dark wooden tables. They have been married since 1994, and both share the same passion in making their guests feel important through their food and hospitality, along with their staff of 11 employees.
During lunch hour, two women appear to be joyfully conversing under a photo of a mountainous Burmese jungle while sharing a plate of Don Pauk, a Biryani dish consisting of basmati rice cooked with Indian spices and served with chicken. By the end of their meal, their plates were empty—a sign of a great meal.
The appetizers at Taste of Burma may be in a league of their own regarding their brilliance in taste and texture.
The Burmese Falafel (Ba Yar Jau) was brought out first, made of mashed lentils mixed with onion, mint, and spices. The crispy fried texture was matched perfectly with a tamarind sauce. Vegan customers will find this dish to be accommodating to their diets, along with all the other appetizers on Hong’s starters list.
When it was time for the main course, Roseanne delivered a plate of the Chicken Masala, a slow-cooked bone-in chicken leg surrounded by potatoes and drenched with Hong’s homemade Burmese curry sauce. Coconut rice accompanied the hearty meal, and Roseanne reminded the guests to eat “Burmese style” by mixing it together with the hearty dish.
The savory chicken was cooked to perfection so that it fell right off the bone. The spices and masala sauce were not overwhelming to the pallet and seemed to blend well together for a refreshing taste that begged for another bite.
“This is where the uniqueness of Burmese food comes about,” Hong said with a smile. “It’s not too spicy like other southeast Asian dishes, and the smells are not overwhelming.”
“You are not sweating while eating this food,” he added.
Since day one at Irrawaddy Taste of Burma, Hong and his family have strived to share the character of Myanmar with Southern Californians through their food—a freedom Hong says is not currently available in his former nation.
“Burma needs freedom,” Hong said. “We do not want communist China to bring Burma under their control. They need help.”
Since the February 2021 coup in Burma, military rule has led to mass civilian casualties and political unrest.
Hong hopes to welcome the Southern California community into his restaurant and connect them with the taste of his native Burma by sharing the culture of his homeland.
“To show Burma was before the current situation,” Hong said.
“I enjoy showing our culture though our foods and bringing people together to enjoy a good meal. I love the freedom we have here to do that.”
Irrawaddy Taste of Burma is open for business daily and offers a selection of meals that will suit all customers’ tastes and diet.