Just about everyone orders the profoundly beautiful tea leaf salad at Rangoon Ruby, downtown Palo Alto's upscale Burmese hot spot. It tastes as good as it looks.
The only issue is to gauge how much salad you or your party can eat, because you'll want to leave room for other dishes and this one is not good as a leftover. Tea leaf salad quickly degrades into a sad, limp memory.
Rangoon Ruby's gleaming beachhead is fortified by the young and well-heeled. It is nothing like Rangoon, the plain Jane Chinese-Burmese restaurant that used to be on Bryant Street. Rangoon Ruby is pretty much the opposite of the other Burmese restaurant in town, Green Elephant Gourmet, which caters to a neighborhood and family clientele. Located in South Palo Alto, Green Elephant is quieter and cheaper, and features many Chinese dishes.
Under high ceilings and swirling Medusa-like light fixtures, Rangoon Ruby bustles with people enjoying the scene, the bright flavors and the extensive cocktail menu. It's a good idea to make a reservation.
In addition to whimsical tiki drinks there are microbrews and imports on draft, changing seasonally. Among them recently was Hanger 24 Orange Wheat ($6), which paired perfectly with the menu's vibrant herbs and spices.
Curiously, the wine list is less fertile. It's overloaded with heavy-duty chardonnays and cabernets.
But back to the signature tea leaf salad ($14), served in pieces and assembled for you at the table. As with many dishes at Rangoon Ruby, tea leaf salad can be made vegetarian. The standard version involves dried shrimp, Burmese tea leaves, fried garlic, yellow beans, chopped lettuce, jalapeno peppers, sesame seeds and peanuts.
"This special salad will awaken your taste buds," the menu promises. Indeed.
Once awakened, your taste buds may also enjoy fiery pork tofu ($17). While our neighbors scarfed up their tofu one recent evening, we were having buyers' remorse about our monk hingar ($13), pureed catfish chowder. It was just dull.
Another Burmese tradition, the noodle dish nan gyi dok ($14), is served in components like the salad and then mixed table-side. Rice noodles are slathered in coconut chicken sauce and amplified by yellow bean powder, cilantro and fried onion. Slices of hard-boiled egg add creaminess, wontons crispiness.
Burma draws culinary influences from its neighbors. Tastes of Thailand, China and India figure prominently, as do seafood, freshwater fish, rice and noodles.
Dishes arrived at a good pace, not all at once. Rangoon Ruby's servers make a strong effort to please not a given when dining out.
Our server recommended basil chili beef ($18), which I liked but my companion judged not spicy enough.
Rangoon Ruby is loud and sleek. Scenic photo collages climb the walls, white-clothed tables nestle close together, and stylish tableware includes square bowls and food-friendly forks with long tines.
Vegetarian and vegan options abound on the wide-ranging menu.
Rangoon Ruby opened in June 2012 in the former Cafe Baklava. A sister ship opened last May in San Carlos. The chefs are veterans of Burma Superstar, the Bay Area's hot little chain. Owner John Lee, born and raised in Burma, honed his hospitality skills while working at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. He minds the details, right down to the mouthwash dispenser in the restrooms.
445 Emerson St., Palo Alto.
Hours: Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (Dinner menu weekends and holidays). Dinner, Sun.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sun. 5-10:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: street and city lots
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: no
Party and banquet facilities: no
Noise level: high
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent