If you have lived in San Francisco for at least two years and have still not been to Yamo…you need to go immediately after reading this post.
Yamo has been an SF institution for like…ever. This place is the very definition of “hole-in-the-wall”. Tightly tucked between a cell phone store and the corner liquor, it’s an 8-seater eatery that dishes out the city’s best Burmese food that you can get for $6 a plate.
I’d heard of this Yamo place many times. Located on the corner of 19th and Mission St., I’d always hurriedly walked past, either on my way to my favorite vegan place, Gracias Madre, located on the opposite corner, or following some hipster foodies to some boujie trendy restaurant on Valencia. Out of all the good eats that SF has to offer, I never felt the urgency to try this hole-in-the-wall place which also didn’t have the best curb appeal.
Well…I know better now.
Craving an Asian fix, Mr. Williams and I were having a hard time thinking of a place to go that wasn’t Thai or Chinese. We would have gone to Burmese Kitchen, had they not moved to the Inner Richmond so now I can’t just walk 2 minutes outside of my apartment to grab some garlic noodles. SIGH. Then, like a lightbulb going off, we thought of Yamo. Ding ding ding!
I guess the time has come.
We ventured over to the Mission in the blistering cold, and noticed a line out the door when we got to Yamo. Of course. I think it is safe to say that it is officially impossible to get into any decent restaurant in SF without waiting. Cold, tired, and hangry (Hungry+Angry), we waited until some seats freed up. And no I’m not kidding, this place literally only has 8 seats.
These 8 precious high stools line the counter, behind which is the open kitchen. You can see everything that the chefs are doing—aka ladies that yell orders, and are too busy to wait on you to decide what to order. They seem like they’ve been doing this for years. Don’t get intimidated, this is just how things are done.
The woks are roaring over the open flames. Smells of that seductively smoky “wok hei”—the breath of the walk, waft throughout the restaurant and onto the street, enticing passersby to poke their heads in and take a peak. Side note here—don’t wear your new blouse that you just got from Zara into this place. You will emerge reeking of “wok hei.”
To start, we ordered the Burmese classic tea leaf salad. A must-have at any Burmese establishment.
I usually like to describe Burmese food as a hybrid between Chinese and Thai cuisine. The flavors, and textures of the different curries and noodles are flavors that I recognize. However, the tea leaf salad is unlike anything I’ve ever had.
What is tea leaf salad?
It is a salad consisting of shredded lettuce that has been tossed with tea leaves that have been fermented and pickled. The mixture is also tossed with crispy fried garlic, crunchy peas, dried shrimp, and chilis. The flavor from the tea leaves is deep, salty, and complex, while the play on textures from the various toppings creates a crunch lover’s paradise.
Next up is the house noodles. This is probably one of Yamo’s most popular dishes, as everyone…literally everyone orders it. Egg noodles are tossed in the house sauce (probably a mixture of sesame oil, and soy sauce) and topped with sautéed beef or chicken. It sounds too simple to be as delicious as it is. The secret lies in the “wok hei,”—the smoky charred flavor from being cooked in a wok over a ridiculously hot flame. I also have a theory that the wok hasn’t been washed in 5 years, but who’s counting when you’re dishing out the best fried noodles ever?
The chicken noodle soup is nothing like the stuff you get from Campbell’s. The broth is made with coconut milk and infused with scallions, red onion, and topped with chicken. This is comfort in a bowl I tell you. Hearty yet light, the creamy broth is paired with egg noodles a combination that brings me back to my mother’s kitchen—if only she was Burmese.
The mango chicken is another popular dish. Think kung pao chicken but less spicy and with cubes of juicy fresh mango stir-fried into the mix. Flavor. Town. Sweet, salty, tart, and spicy, this dish has everything you could ask for and just so happens to be Mr. Williams’ fave.
The fish chowder is another classic Burmese dish. A broth made of fish and spices, it is thickened with chick pea flour—transforming an otherwise light soup into a stick-to-your bones meal that is perfect for a rainy day.
The thing I love most about Burmese food is that it involves the flavors I miss most about Asian cooking, just presented in new combinations. Comfort mixed with adventure. It’s like going to your first day of school in 5th grade. You’ve done it before, and chances you already know most of your classmates. But still it’s the first day of 5th—and that in itself is exciting in it’s own right.
Whether you’re a techie, hipster, or a bearded-craft-barista (I guess that’s the same thing as hipster) who’s living in the city, you need to eat at Yamo. Like today.