Burmese dishes, fragrant with herbs and thick with chickpea flour, have always been hard to find in Seattle. Whisper networks developed to source fermented leaves for laphet thoke, the country’s famous tea-leaf salad, but no Burmese-owned restaurants surfaced in Seattle despite the cuisine’s success in places like Portland and the Bay Area; often, the only places to source Burmese dishes were at annual picnics organized by the local Burmese immigrant community. But in October, a small shop started serving a few of the cuisine’s best-known dishes on a quiet corner of Uptown.
Burmese food makes up one segment of the “more” in Kamino Sushi and More, which took over the old Pho Viet Anh space on Roy Street, but it is the native cuisine of chef Myat Feil. “I didn’t like cooking much when I was young,” she says. Myat still learned a little about how to do it as she earned a degree in hospitality in Myanmar, but it was when she moved to the U.S. — and found herself missing Burmese food — that she really had to figure it out. She learned to love cooking in the process.
“Burmese food is a little bit of Indian food, a little bit of Chinese food,” she says, pointing to the curry and stir-fried dishes, respectively. But then there is tea leaf salad, whose star ingredient is unique to and ubiquitous in the country and its cuisine. “The first thing when a guest arrives to your house, you give them tea and tea leaves,” Myat explains. “Tea leaves are always on the table.”
Tea leaf salad is one of three Burmese dishes currently on the menu at Kamino. It had more Burmese dishes when it opened, including the country’s style of samosas, fried chickpea tofu, and mohinga, a fish noodle soup, but Myat tapered the menu during the slower winter months. Myat plans to add more in the summer, or, with enough demand, even sooner. In the meantime, the menu focuses on the food she spent most of her professional career making: sushi.
The staff of U.S. grocery store sushi bars tends to be heavily Burmese, a quirk that speaks to immigration dynamics and the familiarity with seafood, Myat explains. Myat took a job at one when she immigrated to the U.S. at age 30, and better job opportunities eventually brought her to the Pacific Northwest about 15 years ago. She paid her way through school rolling sushi, graduating with a degree in product design. She hoped to find a job at Boeing, but it never happened.
Instead, she continued to work at sushi bars, including one at a casino where she met a co-worker from another department, Bruce Feil. Together, the pair hatched a plan to open their own wholesale sushi business: Myat as chef and Bruce as owner, businessman, and manager. They started looking for a commercial kitchen in early 2021 but failed to find an open space. After eight months, ready to give up, the restaurant space on Roy Street came onto the market. They hadn’t planned to buy a restaurant, but when the kitchen space they needed came with a dining room, they began to strategize about how to expand on their original idea.
To make money in this corner of Uptown, Myat and Bruce had to get creative. The pair aim to develop a solid catering business among the offices and hotels nearby, and they have a grab-and-go fridge for workers, as well as for people looking for a quick bite before heading across the street to events at Seattle Center. Right now, the menu includes a mix of Vietnamese and Thai noodle dishes and appetizers, poke, teriyaki, and, of course, sushi. They recently added panini to the menu too, because it worked well for corporate lunch business.
But for those Seattleites with experience at the Burmese restaurants of Daly City, California, at Top Burmese in Portland, or even traveling in Myanmar itself, Kamino holds promise in the dishes that represent Myat’s heritage. As they planned their restaurant, “We figured, why not add Burmese food,” says Myat. “I know how to cook it.” One barrier was the difficulty of acquiring fermented tea leaves, which required tapping into their network back home and having them air-shipped over; the endeavor, while expensive, is worthwhile because it allows them to create a version of laphet thoke, or tea leaf salad, they offer. Pungent with garlic, chilies, and sesame oil, Myat’s salad includes the traditional fried dried beans, peanuts, and sesame seeds, along with her own additions of shredded cabbage and spring mix greens.
Kamino offers two Burmese noodle soups, both variations on chicken curry. Thick ohno khao soi takes its texture from chickpea paste stirred into chicken broth and coconut milk chicken curry and comes topped with a hard-boiled egg and sharp raw onions to cut through the richness. The thinner Shan kauk soi pulls its flavor from fermented soybeans and ground peanuts and features rice noodles.
Despite running the kitchen at Seattle’s only Burmese restaurant, Myat remains tentative about the reception to her cuisine. She knows she would have more business from the Burmese community if she opened in Kent or Lynnwood, where most of the area’s Burmese immigrants live, but she also hopes that from the center of the city and through catering, she might be able to expose more people to Burmese cooking. “The goal is to get to the most people possible, to touch more people,” she says.
But it hasn’t been easy: in the restaurant, she gets feedback from customers that the Burmese dishes have too many flavors or take too long to make. “People come for fast food. Burmese is slow,” she says. Still, Myat carries on Burmese traditions in the three dishes on the menu now and in the first question posed to any customer that walks in: “Can I bring you some tea?”