Years ago, it may have seen particularly cool or underground to get takeout via text. Now, it’s become the norm for some of the city’s best new “restaurants.” From the depths of the Gotham Building on North Interstate, Nick Sherbo, David Sai, or Alex Saw emerge with masks and takeout containers of thokes, or Burmese salads pulling their power from fermented tea leaves, house-made chickpea tofu, the hit of dehydrated brine provided by dried shrimp. Customers pay via Venmo, and they return to the kitchen within, tending to their pots of simmering soups and curries.
Frequent farmers market customers will recognize Sherbo, Saw, and Sai as the faces of Rangoon Bistro. Behind a stand at places like the King Farmers Market or Portland Night Market, they would sell fermented tea leaf salads, noodles slithering through curries and aromatic broths, or curries sporting seasonal produce from neighboring vendors. The three men have been hoping to open a restaurant for years now, and in a way, they have: Rangoon Bistro has become something like a takeout-only Burmese cafe, selling dishes like salmon mohinga or potato-filled samusas for takeout.
Both David Sai and Alex Saw grew up in Myanmar, but they met in Malaysia making Italian food. Saw had escaped his home country as a teenager, and became the right-hand man of chef Andrea Zanella, known for his hotel restaurants throughout Southeast Asia. Saw and Sai met in one of his restaurants, but within a few years, the two men were working in the kitchen of Bollywood Theater in Portland. That’s where they met Sherbo, and started to workshop ideas for their own business. It was Sherbo who encouraged the team to pursue Burmese cuisine as a focus, in the perspective of Sai and Saw. “[Sherbo] was really a major support for Burmese food,” Sai says. “He really rallied for Burmese food, he really encouraged us.”
So, they started making thokes, noodle dishes, and curries for the Portland Night Market. They quickly developed a set of regulars — people who grew up eating Burmese food, but also people who had visited the country and missed the thokes and samusas of Yangon. “Every time we have a market day, there are people who have traveled to Myanmar,” Sherbo says. “People from the Bay Area, especially, are excited.”
That makes sense: Unlike the Bay Area, Portland doesn’t have a longstanding history of Burmese restaurants and carts. After their first event in 2017, the Rangoon Bistro guys don’t remember seeing a single Burmese restaurant in Portland. Within the last few years, however, more and more Burmese restaurants and food carts have opened in the city and its suburbs, from Bistro Royale in Beaverton to Burmese Delight in Hawthorne Asylum.
The original plan was to follow in Gado Gado’s footsteps, in Sherbo’s words: Rangoon Bistro would begin hosting more traditional pop-ups, eventually opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. They had started popping up at their former boss’s supper club space, Churchgate Station, but as coronavirus kept more and more people at home, more customers started canceling their reservations. It derailed their timeline significantly. A year later, the three decided to start selling takeout out of their commissary kitchen, a stop-gap measure born out of necessity. “This was not what we wanted to do, and it’s not our ultimate goal,” Sherbo says. “We don’t know when it’ll be feasible to open a brick and mortar again, and we needed a commissary anyway. We thought, ‘Might as well sell more food.’”
Even without a space, however, Rangoon Bistro’s menu feels like what you would expect from a full-blown restaurant: The menu includes a small list of thokes, showcasing everything from roasted eggplant to house-cured tea leaves, as well as curries highlighting house condiments and noodle dishes tangled in garlic oil. Many of the restaurant’s dishes naturally avoid gluten or meat, including a Mustard Seed Farm squash curry with coconut milk and a ginger thoke with coconut, besan flour, cabbage, tomato, and crunchy nuts and seeds. The dishes that do use meat, however, are well-suited for the dreary Oregon winter: Braised pork belly curry with mango achar, or a noodle soup swirling with lemongrass and salmon. Many of Rangoon Bistro’s dishes use produce from Oregon and Washington farms like Groundworks, and a handful of the noodle dishes rely on Portland’s Umi Organics noodles.
In the future, the three men still want to open their own restaurant: Something with 30 or 35 seats, where customers can order several small plates to share. “We want to have the homey feeling of sitting down at a place,” Saw says.
For now, Rangoon Bistro is available for pickup Fridays through Sundays, at 2240 N Interstate Avenue. View the menu here, and text (503) 953-5385 to place an order.
• Rangoon Bistro [Official]
• Two Portland Cooks Give Burmese Food a Fresh Voice [PoMo]