Rangoon Bistro started spreading the gospel of Burmese street food through pop-up dinners. It later became a fixture of the King Farmers Market, and shifted to a takeout-only concept operating out of the Gotham Building, during the height of the pandemic. That evolution has now culminated in a brick and mortar restaurant in Southeast Portland’s Breathe Building.
“The way we’ve done everything is slow but deliberate,” co-owner Nick Sherbo told the Mercury. “Alex and I started talking about this idea over five years ago, [saying] we’ll know it’s time to open a place when we’re constantly hearing ‘when are you going to open a restaurant?!’”
Chef Alex Saw has spent over half his lifetime away from his homeland, but he says that, in a sense, he's returned home via his restaurant. In 2010, Saw arrived to the US by way of Malaysia, which he'd fled to as a teenager to avoid arrest for covering political protests in Myanmar.
As he worked his way up in the kitchen of the Michelin-starred chef Andrea Zanella, he met fellow Burmese expatriate David Sai. The pair honed their skills in fine Italian dining, and upon reuniting in Portland initially planned to open an Italian restaurant. However Sherbo—whom they met while working at Bollywood Theater—suggested they cook Burmese cuisine instead.
The trio decided to focus on Burmese food, in part because it would give them the opportunity to represent their country. The restaurant’s social media is mostly devoted to delicious-looking food, but the owners aren't shy about showing their active participation in local protests and sharing fundraising efforts—especially in response to the military junta that overthrew and deposed the Myanmar's democratically elected government in 2021.
Myanmar (which is also called Burma) cuisine draws influence from its many bordering countries—spins on Indian curries and biryanis, adaptations of Chinese noodle dishes, and other points of reference from Bangladesh, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. Rangoon Bistro takes its name from the country’s capital city, now known as Yangon.
The restaurant's menu—a compilation of tried-and-true dishes that were first tested during the bistro’s previous iterations—is divided into four sections: noodles, crispy items, rice dishes, and thokes (salads). Going with a group is the best approach, so you can order a bunch of dishes and try a little of everything.
One of the menu's staples is house-made chickpea tofu, which originated from the Shan people of eastern Myanmar. To make it, the staff soaks chickpea flour overnight until it forms a paste which then cooks on low heat for three to four hours. After adding turmeric for color and subtle flavor, the mixtures requires constant stirring to maintain the tofu’s smooth consistency. In its silken form, Rangoon Bistro's tofu is poured over Umi Organic rice noodles, acting as a gravy. The firm fresh tofu has a starring role in its own salad, or you can order it crispy, with tamarind chutney and vegan ranch for dipping.
Another salad, the lahpet thoke, is Sai and Saw’s pride and joy. It contains crispy nuts and seeds, tomato, garlic oil, and cabbage, but the key ingredient is lahpet: pickled green tea leaves. The dish has a tangy and earthy flavor, but it’s an unusual taste for many palates.
Lahpet is quite unique to Burmese culture, as Myanmar is one of a few countries that eat tea in addition to drinking it. The bistro's version sources green tea from Minto Island Tea Company down in Salem, then adds fish sauce, ginger, garlic, and dried shrimp to give the leaves an intense umami flavor.
As Rangoon Bistro adapted to its new incarnations, Sai fine-tuned the processes for these beloved Burmese specialties. But he also drives to innovate, which he says stems from his experience in different bars and restaurants, and seeing how important it is to continually ask what’s new. His philosophy is to preserve the flavor of an existing dish while incorporating his own techniques. One of Sai's creations is the restaurant’s sweet coconut milk drink, which combines the ubiquitous Southeast Asian ingredient with condensed milk and toasted salt for an altogether sweet, savory, creamy, and refreshing beverage that serves as a good temper to the bold flavors of the food. Speaking of, many of the restaurant’s dishes are mildly to moderately spicy, but if you’re looking to kick things up a notch or two, you can request some fresh Thai chilis.
While Rangoon Bistro is currently in the process of obtaining a liquor license, Sai—true to form—already has a sticky rice martini waiting in the wings.
Rangoon Bistro, 2311 SE 50th, (503) 953-5385, rangoonbistropdx.com