It would be easy to dismiss what Haight Street’s Burma Bear calls its “California BBQ” – seeing that California has no such thing.
What it does have are attempts at Southern barbecue traditions, which really don’t cut it when you compare them to the real thing. I’ve yet to go to a barbecue spot around here with the kind of massive pit of smoking meat you might find in the South.
This doesn’t mean that Burma Bear’s spare ribs aren’t tasty, because they are. They’re lusciously glazed, with a palpable, smoky-tingly spice thing going on: sweet, but not for sweet’s sake. There’s plenty of cooked-on, caramelly sticky-chewy crust on the meaty bone too, and it isn’t so slathered in marinade that you can’t taste the the juicy meat. It complements the Burmese accoutrements that make Burma Bear a not-so-ordinary food stand.
Burma Bear’s core premise is that barbecue and Burmese food go hand in hand like peanut butter and jelly. I tend to agree. The smoky-sweet-savory heat of the spare ribs’ glaze reminds me of Burma Superstar’s garlic eggplant dish — so, of course, the ribs go well with a sweet, glutinous mound of coconut rice. It beats potato salad in my book. There are also other options, such as a plain brown rice and a biryani visibly flecked with cardamom and star anise.
The complimentary side of pickles — thick slices of cucumber and shredded carrot doused in a sharp vinegar — did little more for me than cut the heat.
Far more alluring was the tea leaf salad, which is well worth the few extra bucks. Peanuts are fried crispy and crumbly, and the 1-2 combination punch of fish sauce and zestful lime juice meets its mark — achieving a wonderful balance. Little dried shrimp give an extra dose of umami, jalapeno a bit of heat. To top it off, the fragrant breath of tea hits the back of the nose. It hits you right side up and upside down, getting all taste buds firing like Fourth of July explosions in my mouth.
Also worth getting is the traditional chicken curry. The thighs are thoroughly impregnated in a turmeric-based marinade, cooked tender, then seared on the outside, nice and crispy. It’s not the gutsy, suck-your-fingers splendor of the barbecue plate, but it’s full of freshness.
At the Second Act Marketplace, where Burma Bear is located beside an ice cream stand and a creperie, there also is a theater which sometimes offers “mommy and me” -type classes and a community garden, making it a neighborhood center – though at times the place creaks in the quiet.
The place still feels like it’s still in the process of coming together — both Burma Bear and the whole multiplex — but much of Burma Bear’s food is addictive and comforting, giving it the potential to become a neighborhood favorite.
Location: 1727 Haight St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 463-5592, www.burmabear.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m to 5 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Price range: $8 to $10
Recommended dishes: baby back ribs rice plate ($10), tea leaf salad ($9)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted