If focus groups or marketing gurus had been consulted, Burmese cuisine wouldn't have made anybody's Top 25, but Green Elephant Gourmet is exactly what South Palo Alto's Charleston Shopping Center was missing. Also surprising, it is the owners' first restaurant.
I stumbled, literally, into Green Elephant on July 22, a scorching Saturday night deep into the heat wave. I wasn't reviewing, just desperate for cool air. Green Elephant had been open exactly two days.
Maybe 10 other customers ate there that night. But the food, decor, and service by owners Christina Win and Michael Maumg were so nice that I knew I'd be back when they really get going.
They're going now. On a recent Thursday night, Green Elephant was almost full, with neighbors happily bumping into one another once again.
You don't have to be a South Palo Altan to enjoy Green Elephant Gourmet. It is easily accessible on Middlefield Road, half a mile from San Antonio, and therefore, Mountain View. Parking is a snap.
Nor do you have to know a thing about Burmese food. Green Elephant also has loads of familiar Chinese restaurant dishes, from wonton soup to fried rice and kung pao chicken.
But if you want to know, Burma, now called Myanmar, draws culinary influences from neighboring India, China and Thailand, particularly. Seafood and freshwater fish, rice and noodle dishes are fundamentals.
Green Elephant's short life has stoked customer interest in Burmese food. Win and Maumg are working on a separate Burmese menu of about 30 items, including a multi-course Burmese family dinner, and fuller descriptions of each dish.
For now, here's a handful of dishes to look for, and a couple to skip.
Definitely get a salad ($7.25). Starring ginger, mango, tofu or Burmese tea leaves as the main players, the Burmese salads appear as little artworks on your table. The server carefully spoons supporting ingredients into the central pile of chopped iceberg lettuce. In the tea leaf salad, they include fried garlic, chopped tomatoes, sesame seeds and peanuts. Mango salad features fresh, juicy slices of mango with dried corn kernels, dried ginger, fried coconut, sunflower seeds and ginger powder. Ginger lovers, go directly to the pickled ginger salad.
The Burmese soup called On Noh Kauswer ($7.50) is subtle and smooth, like a slightly spicy cream of tomato, but with egg noodles at the bottom of the serving bowl and lots of tender pieces of chicken. Coconut, onion, cilantro and lemon add tang and texture.
On the current menu, the Burmese dishes aren't clearly marked, except for curries. At the top of each protein type is a curry dish, and each curry is a little different. Burmese curries are closer to Thai than Indian in flavor and firepower. They highlight rather than dominate.
All the curries we tried were excellent. Green Elephant curry beef ($10.50) features lemongrass, yogurt, bay leaves, onions and garlic. With prawns ($12.95) there are tomatoes, and the prawns stay juicy. Chicken curry ($9.50) dabbles in fish stock.
Sizzling Seafood Deluxe ($12.95) is a festival of sauteed scallops, prawns, chicken, fish and vegetables kept warm on a metal plate.
Even the mixed vegetables ($7.95) are something special, with your choice of sauce. Get hot garlic sauce. Burmese hot is pretty subtle, unless you ask for hotter.
The Burmese noodle dish called Nan Gyi Dok ($7.50), chicken and rice noodles in coconut sauce, also is assembled at the table.
Jasmine rice cooked with coconut milk ($2.00) is the Burmese style, and it's richly rewarding. Green Elephant also has plain rice and several fried rice dishes.
The one Chinese dish we tried, orange beef ($10.50) hit the sweet and spicy spot. The orange peel was like chewy candy, the beef tender and plentiful, even for the price. A border of steamed broccoli flowerets made it seem healthy.
On the down side, mango chicken ($9.50) should have been called mango bell peppers, for all the chicken in attendance. Maybe the Burmese samusas ($4.95) are crisper now. And the dish called Poodi ($7.95), potato curry served with mu shu pancakes, packs enough carbs to fuel a hike up Mount McKinley.
The wine list is short and well-intended, with a food-friendly Riesling and a Pinot Noir.
Green Elephant's decor is also welcome. It's a little formal, with white tablecloths and art glass on the tables. A red arch and bamboo trunks fence off the dining room.
For dessert, you face a fork in the road. Green Elephant's fried bananas ($3.50) are light and crispy, with bananas cooked through. Or you can go next door and get the traditional South Palo Alto treat: Rick's Ice Cream.
Do you have another new favorite restaurant in your neighborhood? Let us know about it by leaving a comment at TownSquare. Go to www.PaloAltoOnline.com.
Green Elephant Gourmet:
Website: coming soon
Credit cards: yes
Parking: big lot in Charleston Shopping Center
Alcohol: beer and wine
Outdoor dining: no
Party and banquet facilities: no
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent
3950 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily.
Dinner 4:30-9 p.m. daily
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