The Downtown Buffalo menu again features sushi, as well as Burmese and Thai soups, salads, noodles and rice dishes. The news doesn’t seem to have caught on, however, judging by the skinny crowd at 302 Main St., where Rakhapura restaurant plays top Asian cricket hits.
Get it while you can, as current mob numbers don’t seem strong enough to pay Main Street’s rent.
Then food TV celebrity Alton Brown stopped by before his April 6 show and tweeted to his 4.4 million followers, “If you live a day’s drive from Buffalo, you should eat here.”
How we got here is that Burmese immigrants Khain Thein and Win Shwe sold sushi, soup and salad at the West Side Bazaar for years, then moved to Main Street. Rakhapura is an ancient kingdom in what is now called Myanmar, home to the Arakanese people.
Several months ago, they sold the business to fellow Arakanese Soe Win and Elizabeth Sher, who run a bazaar stand selling bubble tea, lotus flower cookies, samosas and other snacks.
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Now Sher is in the kitchen of a cavernous space that stretches from Main Street to Cathedral Park. A previous generation of immigrants last operated there, the Greek restaurant Olive & Ivy and Vasilis. Sher’s cooks include One Thammasithikoun, owner of the late Gourmet Lao Foods, another West Side Bazaar graduate.
For years, I plotted for Buffalo lunches to stop at the West Side Bazaar. Instead, the bazaar came to them.
Obvious attractions include freshly made sushi that beats picking out a supermarket chilled version.
Standards like Tuna and Avocado, Spicy Tuna, and Salmon Rolls ($6.99) were on target. California (imitation crab, cucumber, avocado, $4.99), Lincoln (apple, green bean, cucumber, tofu, $6.99) and garden vegetables (green bean, pepper, tofu, $4.99) are light bites.
Whether it’s Americanized sushi, bedazzled chonky boi rolls with more layers, lacquer sauces and crispy crumbs, counting as a light lunch or entree depends on your appetite.
Rakhapura’s American Roll ($9.99) is a prime example of such gory blockbusters. A snow crab coat is drizzled with sweet and spicy sauces around a center of crab salad and rice, with cucumber, shredded jalapeño and seaweed salad, punctuated with toasted sesame seeds. It’s basically a bowl of rice reformatted into bite-size pieces.
Even more engaging, the Crispy Roll ($9.99) has a savory heart of shrimp tempura, buttery avocado and crab salad, sweet and spicy sauces, and tufts of fried onions that reminded me of the Thanksgiving green bean casserole.
Who doesn’t love a good salad for a lunch? Rakhapura serves Burmese and Thai cannon dills.
Green Papaya Salad ($8.99, with shrimp $9.99) is a stone-cold stunner, crisp, sour vegetable shreds of unripe fruit dressed in a lime fish sauce with tomatoes , carrots, green beans, cucumber and lettuce. A tangle of plain rice noodles, mixed in as desired to dilute the intensity, plays the same role in dampening the heat as the reactor control rods.
Then there’s the Burmese vegan blockbuster called lapeth thoke, or tea leaf salad ($8.99). Fermented like sauerkraut instead of being dried for use as a drink, the olive green leaves are tossed with diced tomatoes, fried seeds and nuts, shredded cabbage and peanuts, spread with lime juice and glazed with garlic oil. Eat it straight or mix it half and half with rice for a minor meal.
My fervor for pushing the tea leaf salad on unsuspecting visitors was only bolstered by the 100% responsiveness rate. It’s even gluten-free.
Although I’ve mentioned tea leaf lettuce in 46 Buffalo News articles since 2011, Alton Brown had never heard of it. I was shocked, too.
He caught up. After posting a photo of Rakhapura dishes, a reader asked “Where’s the tea leaf salad?”
“It was already gone by then,” Brown replied. “Everything is fine.”
He also dug the Butterbean Curry ($8.99), so creamy after a long, patient cooking that for the first time I understood how they got their name.
There is no shortage of other Burmese adventures. Palata roti ($14.99), with beef curry, provides flaky toast to dip in the dark and sweet masala of ginger and shallot.
“Arakanese Teen” ($8.99) isn’t a typo. It is a lemongrass chicken broth simmered with calabash, also known as bottle gourd, a vegetable prized for its rejuvenating health effects. It doesn’t have a strong taste, rather mild and sweet, somewhere between cucumber and squash, but with tomatoes and sliced chicken breast, it’s a nice bowl of soup.
Adventurous eaters should ask for balangchuang, a dry blend of spices and more that the Burmese sprinkle on to brighten up any situation, even plain rice, like Japanese furikake. This mix is much more energetic, including more chilli and fried garlic, over a bass funk of roasted minced shrimp paste.
Take a seat at the table overlooking Main Street and savor the best Buffalo has to offer: America’s breakfast soup and salad combo, updated by some of America’s newest.
302 Main Street (rakhapurarestaurant.com716-308-7640)
Opening hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Price: Entrees, $4.99 to $14.99; sushi, $4.99 to $12.99; soup, $7.99 to $10.99; salads, $4.99 to $13.99.
Atmosphere: calm and spacious
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free: many choices
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