Mike Sablan wanted to be a business consultant when he was in college. Thank our lucky stars he didn’t do that, because when the half-Burmese chef later met visual artist and musician Tyler Drosdeck, they created Lucky Number, a Burmese pop-up starring rich, palate-startling dishes such as lahpet thoke, a preserved tea salad.
Burmese food is not a familiar cuisine in America — yet. Though immigrants from Myanmar are one of the largest refugee populations in the States, Burmese restaurants are still sparse in large metropolises like New York. Mention mohinga, the rice noodle and fish stew known as the national dish of Myanmar, and few will know its ingredients include lemongrass, banana tree stem, ginger, fish paste and fish sauce. Fewer still know that Myanmar has over 100 ethnic groups, and that mohinga will vary according to the region, or that Yangon and Mandalay have glorious amounts of stalls to please any street food flaneur.
At a recent pop-up collaboration with Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, Lucky Number featured an exciting, palate-startling mashup of Compagnie’s French cuisine and their Burmese street foods. From a pork rind with a smooth-as-silk balachaung (dried shrimp relish) liver mousse, to a tangy curried fish with fragrant carottes râpées, French and Burmese flavors were beautifully paired. Lucky Number is innovative, and not afraid to cross borders, plating chickpea tofu with fried samosa triangles, all of it smattered with lemongrassy crispy onions and flavored with a tamarind curry paste that had the texture of butterscotch.
We spoke with Lucky Number creators Tyler Drosdeck and Michael Sablan in advance of their upcoming September 4 pop-up at Don Muang Airport, the restaurant at popular music venue Baby’s All Right in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. No RSVP’s are necessary, as the Burmese menu will be served a la carte from 6 to 10 p.m.
Paste: What’s the Lucky Number origin story?
Tyler Drosdeck: I’ve always fantasized about opening a restaurant; I’ve just been waiting for something to say or add to the landscape of New York, where there is already so much amazing food available at all hours. A couple years ago, I found myself in Myanmar, a side trip to a longer journey I took to Nepal. A few days into my trip, I was sitting in a cafe in Bagan and had a very sudden realization that the idea seemed to be right in front of me, literally in the form of tea salad. Then shortly after returning, you might say under auspicious circumstances, I met Mike. It turned out Mike he was a chef and his mother was born in Yangon. We chose the name partly as a reference to the serendipity of our meeting.
Paste: The flavors at Lucky Number are largely unfamiliar to Americans, but you manage to make them approachable. Was that important to you?
TD: Yes, very much so. The aim is not so much to cater specifically to an American palette, nor to imitate Burmese dishes, but to create something that combines our cooking history with these flavors we’ve encountered. I feel that the whole idea of “authenticity” is a hollow concept, especially in the arena of what gets label “ethnic food”.
To give an example, so much of what is associated with the type of Indian food that is popular in the U.S. was brought to Delhi and other Northern Indian cities by Persians during the Mughal Empire. Traders have historically been a catalyst for cultural exchange and we see the Lucky Number project through that lens. For us, it’s much more interesting for Lucky Number to be conversation rather than imitation.
Mike Sablan: Absolutely. It’s helpful that Burma’s neighbors already have garnered a great deal adoration from Western palates so we can highlight those similarities in order to tell our story through food. On top of that we try to feature local, seasonal ingredients in place of some harder to get varieties when possible and appropriate. These two aspects tend to unarm our guests so that we might weave in some more eccentric flavors.
Paste: What is it you love about Myanmar’s food?
MS: Myanmar is the name the military junta gave to the country under their regime. I’ll refer to Myanmar and its food as Burmese.
I like the uniqueness of Burmese food. It’s bordered by some very famous countries, namely China, India, and Thailand. Those countries influence some of the flavors and types of dishes but they do not define it. Burmese food has a character all its own. I can’t get into all the minutiae of the myriad dishes but I can say how it differs from its neighbors. Thailand is very bright, salty, acidic and sweet. Chinese food is often heavier, and quite savory, but still varied and complex. Indian food gives Burma biryani and curries, and some moorish influences. But something like the fermented tea leaf salad is a very unique creation that sparks interest and wonderment that we love about Burmese cuisine.
Paste: What are the essential dishes to taste when you are learning about the food?
TD: Mohinga, a fish and rice noodle stew, is the most beloved dish of Myanmar and the most obvious place to start. Fish and rice are main staples of the Burmese diet and sustain the country’s people through day to day life. Mohinga is a great example of the wonderful balance of flavors and textures that define Burmese cuisine. The salads, including lahpet thoke, preserved tea salad, are also a great place to start. The endless iterations of salads really illustrate the inventiveness of Burmese cuisine.
MS: Good strong black tea and tandoor breads; simple, but found on every street corner, much like mohinga. Definitely the salads, in all their different forms which are quite different from any Western concept of a salad. For me personally, it’s ngapi, and ngapi kyaw, ferment shrimp paste made into a dipping sauce or condiment with fried shallots and garlic. I could eat this with white rice all day every day — stinks up the whole house when you make it at home but it’s so worth it.
Paste: You go around and explain the dishes in detail, which adds so much to the pop-up experience. Why do you do that?
TD: When people are trying things for the first time, they often look to others to sort of show the ropes, and we felt that everyone — ourselves included — would get so much more from the experience if we were to offer some context.
Paste: The music you play at the popup is really fun stuff from tapes you collected while in Burma.
TD: Whenever I travel, I try to bring home music, especially music that is difficult or impossible to find back at home. Popular music in Myanmar has a very interesting history. There is a whole tradition of “copy songs” which are songs that mimic the melodies and arrangements of Western pop songs with Burmese lyrics that have no relationship to the original English lyrics. Many of these copy songs are well known and loved by people throughout the country with absolutely no awareness of the Western pop songs they originated from. Burmese classical music is very beautiful and we have shared some of this music at the pop ups as well. I have been digitizing a lot of the music I have collected so when we started the pop up it just felt natural to share some of it.
Paste: The green tea salad is unlike any flavor I’ve ever tasted. What is special about that dish, and why is it so popular in Burma?
MS: I love that salad for all the crunchy bits. Those are the accoutrements that comes with the dish — nuts, lentils, fried alliums, snack mix. Those crunchy bits change with our whimsy and give the dish most of the textural and some of the more subtle flavor components.
TD: I agree! Lahpet is really the dish that inspired us to start Lucky Number, precisely because it is so unique. For the people of Myanmar, it has many special symbolic uses. As for its popularity, perhaps it is a bit of national pride, to celebrate something uniquely Burmese, or maybe simply because it tastes so good!
MS: I like it because it’s funky and fun. I’ve really started to delve deeper into fermented foods at home — it’s a challenge and a lot of fun. Real laphet is fermented for many months inside sections of bamboo and buried underground in order to rot to perfection. We don’t have that capacity right now so we get it a far as we can given time restrictions. One day!
Paste: What familial, travel or background connections do you have with Burma? Any interesting familial or travel stories concerning food?
MS: Tyler and I took a trip to Burma last year in the fall and it was amazing. I was so blown away by everything I almost forgot to look down at my food many times. I’ve grown up knowing about Burma, and its people, however I never thought I’d be able to go. Political tensions have been rife there for the better part of the twentieth century and I didn’t expect them to change so suddenly during the Obama administration.
On top of that, my family has a pretty intimate tie to the now-deceased leader of the military regime that has been responsible for much of the country’s turmoil during the twentieth century — through marriage, not blood! To put it mildly, my mom told me not to look up my relatives when I went there last year, not to ruffle any feathers. I spilled the beans to a couple folks and they were actually so nice about it. Everyone there is friendly as hell and just happy to be hanging out with a non-colonial westerner. I think there is a light at the end of a tunnel for the country.
Paste: There’s been a lot of social repression there. Do you feel people use food as a safe means of expression?
TD: I haven’t really considered the culinary history in that way before. Actually, in my experience one of the great things about food is that it can be separate from politics. The dinner table, in my family any way, is a place where we gather regardless of our personal beliefs and share pleasure. I can’t really speak specifically for the Burmese people about their motivations, but I would say that, universally, food is something that gives people great relief in day to day life. The word restaurant actually comes from the French word “restaurer” which means to restore.
MS: Ditto, the food is usually tied to customs, to the past. For new cuisines, maybe it’s about expression, but for Burmese food in Burma, it’s about ties to that which came before. The dinner table is the place you convene with your loved ones or colleagues and feel safe to actually express yourself with your words.
Paste: Your price point is really affordable for eaters who want to discover the cuisine.
TD: I hope people feel that is the case because it is very important to me. Not to step onto too much of a soapbox, but the reality of the American diet is that it is unsustainable, at least at the price we as consumers are paying now. Food in our country is heavily subsidized and many people in the service industry are paid wages that are difficult to form a real living from. And the restaurant business is tough because the profit margins tend to be small. We are trying to find the right balance because ultimately the whole point of doing this is to share it with as many people as we possibly can.
Paste: What is it like to do this as a popup?
MS: It’s a struggle! Most people told us before we started any of this that the first one is the hardest because you tend to overlook a lot of little things… tongs, towels, a component of a dish maybe. It’s the minutiae of running a restaurant — for a day. I think that’s true, however, each pop up is unique for us and depending on the location, menu, staff, etc., it can provide endless sources of oversight and frustration. I’m very proud of us for never letting a single dish fail so far because of lack of preparation or poor food handling.
TD: Basically we are creating a restaurant that exists for one night and as you can imagine, it’s quite a lot of work to open and close a new restaurant over and over again. The flip-side is that the freedom to experiment within the pop up format is really exciting. It’s also so invigorating to focus all of our energy into an experience that is so temporal. It happens, then it has happened, and we learn so much each time about what direction we might take next.
MS: Some dishes have gone over better than others but overall the quality and level of finesse keeps going up — and with it, the difficulty. We hope that as we approach our final destination, whether it be a restaurant or some other concept, that we can hone in on what works and what doesn’t while still elevating the cuisine to something that looks better than what you might find in a common Burmese home, but tastes as good, if not better, and expresses our mastery of cooking in general. “Make it nice”, “finesse”, and “soigné” are terms that get thrown around a lot in kitchens and indeed are almost trademarks of some of the best restaurants in the country. That’s not lost on us. Our food always has to approach the expectations chefs in those kitchens would have. We are not cooking for fun, this is our work, and we love it.
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Dakota Kim is Paste’s Food Editor. She is currently googling the closest Burmese restaurant to her. Tweet her @dakotakim1.