Like great music, art, film and theater, great restaurants come in many shapes, and sizes, evoking a uniquely vital reaction from their audience.
Burmatown, a tiny gem of a venue, in Larkspur, California, opened its doors in 2014 and has already earned destination restaurant status with a line out the door Tuesday through Sunday nights. Customers from near and far know the wait will be worth it for the one of a kind Burmese-Asian Fusion they will experience once inside.
Living the once-a-daydream is mother/daughter and best friend team Jen (the Chef), and daughter Jennifer (front of house), who both shook off former careers in retail sales and graphic design/bartending to invest whole heartily in their shared aspiration.
Jen, who moved from Burma to the Bay Area with her family when she was 13, was deeply moved when Jennifer proffered the big idea a few years back.
Jen: I’ve always had this passion and love for cooking, throwing parties and preparing special meals for family and friends. After being a retail manager for 14 years at Nordstroms, I decided I wanted to finally do what I am passionate about which is cooking. I worked in two restaurants, and then Jennifer said, ‘You know, one day, we should have a business together.’ And I thought, what more could I ask for? To work with someone I love and trust.
However, it is common knowledge that though being a talented cook, dreaming of owning a restaurant with a friend or family member, and actually doing it successfully, are distinctly different things.
Jennifer: I grew up very close to my Mom. We have always been each other’s best friend. Even as a teenager I would tell her everything, which is kind of rare for a mother and daughter. Our closeness has a lot to do with my Mom being supportive of everything I was going through and being super open. When we decided to go on this adventure together it was easier because we were able to express our feelings, even if it was in fighting. We’ve had many fights but we are always able to express how we feel and then get past it.
Jen: I trust Jennifer’s judgment. She has a really good head on her shoulders. Since she was little, she was always very mature. She is also very intelligent. She has always loved my cooking because I have always cooked at home.
Jennifer: The only thing missing was that we knew nothing about starting a restaurant together. Getting a business license, learning how to run front-of-house, how set the plates down correctly, literally we had to start from square one. I did a lot of research.
Jen: But it was exciting, every night, creating a menu together, planning, trying to figure out the best name for the restaurant.
‘What’s in a name?’ Everything.
Jennifer: We’d sit in bed late at night. Coming up with ideas for the name. Finally, we were just talking about the fact there’s not a lot of Burmese Cuisine anywhere. We realized, there’s China Town, there’s Japan Town, and there’s Little Thailand. There’s no Burmatown! When we heard that we knew. It clicked. It had to be Burmatown.
Location Location Location…
Once they decided to partner in a restaurant, Jennifer began putting in copious hours of research on the topic, as well as looking for a venue. Having grown up in San Rafael with Jen for 16 years, they both knew foodwise, there was not much choice for Asian food in Marin, and specifically, no Burmese Cuisine offerings. They knew they could offer Marin something special.
Dream to Reality
Jen: In the beginning it was very hard.
Jennifer: The biggest challenge initially was portion control. Mom was used to making small batches. Even now we still do things ‘home style’, like home cooking, so that way it is similar. But it was really hard at first. We also learned that we had to create our own way of doing things as well. For instance, a lot of people would say ‘You’re not going to make it if you don’t take reservations in Marin.’ But we stuck to it and it started working with people signing in. Some people don’t like it. But thankfully they still seem happy to wait.
Jen: It took us a year to get our feet on the ground. But in the restaurant industry, everyday is a new challenge. You learn, you make mistakes, and you try to learn from your mistakes. Once in a while we still run out of items on the menu because we’re so busy every night.
Jennifer: We weren’t expecting to be so popular. We were worried we wouldn’t be busy at all.
Jen: We have a lot of returning customers. Locals we see a couple times a week, and people from all over the world: Europe, New York, they will come here because they ‘yelped’ it, or have been here before.
Jen: We are not looking to expand. I love this coziness. We want to keep things simple and personal. We like these 30 seats. At the end of the night I will come out and greet who’s here and ask them about the meal and get their feedback. I met a couple last night who had been trying to eat here for a long time but the line was too long. It means a lot to us that people really want to eat here. And that they come back.
Jennifer: One way we would like to expand is in our catering business, maybe a kitchen site for our catering. But no thoughts of another place or making a bigger place
A Calm Joyful Dedicated Staff
Jennifer: It’s just the people that we look for when we’re hiring. We have pretty much had the same team since day one. A lot of people say, ‘Oh my God, it’s so chaotic, how do you stay so calm?
The Michael Lew Factor
Every now and again a waiter/restaurant ‘superhero’ comes along who just embodies all of what dining out should be about. Burmatown’s MVP for this is Michael Lew.
Jennifer: His passion is just to be a great host, waiter and entertainer. He just finds joy in that. So it’s really great to have him. He helped us in the beginning as well. There’s no research you can do on how to run the front of a restaurant really. You just have to learn by doing it, dive in to it. Mike helped us a lot technically: picking up tables correctly, how to pour this, how present that.
The Burmese Difference
Jennifer: Burmatown offers a fusion of Burmese, Chinese, Thai and Indian Cuisine. Burmese flavors are milder. The curries are more soft, not as spicy or sweet. Noodle salads are really big. My favorite is our Tea Leaf Salad with fermented green tea leaves, cabbage, Burmese nuts, beans, Jalapeno and dried shrimp. I eat it every day. There’s a little caffeine in there so it makes it perfect for eating before I work. Typically at Burmese restaurants, the waiter will mix it tableside. The Tea Leaf Salad is something people will come specifically for. We present it with all the ingredients separated.
Jen: There was a night, last week, we ran out of our baby back ribs. Sunday night. We were slammed. At the end of the night, I spoke to these two young girls. I said ‘How was your dinner?’ And she said ‘You know, I really wanted the baby back ribs, and you guys ran out.’ And I said to myself, I made extra! I had made extra. But who would have thought we would run out on a Sunday evening after I had made extra?’
On Del Monte Meat Company
Jen: I love the quality, very good. I order 3 cases a week, forty pounds. I slow cook it for two hours. Cool it down in fridge. I use some flours. I use some sauce, Gojuging that CW carries, the sesame seeds, the Korean Chili powder, Chili flake, I am very glad I don’t have to go around looking for quality meat. We go through one case every two days. It takes me an hour to prep 20 pounds.
Jen: It’s perfect. Our Sales Rep, Daniel Rothbart is great. I was just saying to my Sous Chef Walter in the kitchen, I said ‘You know I have all these different vendors. I have two different companies for fish, you’ve got veggie people, you know..all these sales reps, it is not easy to talk to them or tell them my needs. But with Daniel, I can tell him what I need. I am very comfortable with him. The fact that he is a former chef makes a big difference. It is more like a relationship and this is very important. Sometimes I feel like, when an order goes wrong or the scallops are bad, or whatever, you get ‘Sorry I can’t help you.’ But with Daniel, he is actually he comes in often asks how we are doing. I haven’t seen anyone do this since the three years we’ve been open. It is true.
It’s nice because I can just text him what I need. He will take care of it for me. He is always asking, ‘Have you tried this? We have this product. Let me give you a free bag. Try it and see what you think. You can’t find someone that is striving to please like that very often.
Jen: No day off. But I love it. At the end of the night, when I come out and talk to the people eating. This gives me joy. Everyone is happy. They say ‘thank you for cooking for us.’
Jennifer: Sometimes people clap.
Jen: When I come out.
Jen: And they say they’ll be back.