Sandy’s Myanmar Cuisine, a stall opening within the Collective Oregon Eateries (CORE) food hall on Southeast 82nd Avenue this spring, is decades in the making. Owner Mya Sandy Myint has sold her food at festivals and farmers markets, in hotels and bookstores. She’s served curries in church basements, sold meals to her interpretation clients. She developed a foundation of devotees, who pre-order meals for pickup from the Portland Mercado. But her own United States storefront has been her dream for years, one she has been pursuing off and on since she moved here in 2005. Her goal: to serve the Burmese foods she loves to an audience that may or may not be familiar with them.
Some kids start lemonade stands. At 10, Myint opened a combination bookstore-cafe. The oldest sibling in her family, she was determined and independent, and she wanted to start selling mont let saung — a coconut milk and sago dessert — in her hometown of Taunggyi, within the Shan State of Myanmar. At the time, mont let saung was harder to find there; it had become more popular in the much warmer Yangon. Her grandfather saw something in her, and helped her open her business. When it started to interfere with her school, however, her parents made her leave it behind.
Instead, she helped her grandmother, who prepared foods for the community church — something she has continued to do throughout her life. When her family decided to move to the United States, Myint stayed behind and opened her first food business as an adult: A stall at the Yangon Water Festival. Her extended family would help her during the festival, and the business’s popularity helped accelerate her plans to open a restaurant in Yangon, Captain. After a few fits and starts, Myint settled into a space within the Kandawgyi Hotel, where she opened Sandy’s Myanmar Cuisine. “In Yangon, there weren’t that many Burmese restaurants because most people cook,” she says. “But ours was successful.”
She accrued praise from local media, and developed a loyal following. But just as she was settling into the space, her family had the opportunity to join her siblings in the United States. She had to choose between staying in Myanmar to focus on her business, or moving to the United States for the benefit of her kids’ education. For her, the choice was non-negotiable. “I couldn’t prioritize my family business over my daughter,” Myint says. “I have to sacrifice. I’m a mother.”
For a few years, Myint tried to run her restaurant from the United States, until Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008. The severe infrastructural damage to the country made running a restaurant in a hotel a challenge; running a restaurant from the United States was impossible. So she let her business go and focused on her life in Portland. She sold food on the side and catered for her family church, but her culinary career slid to the back burner. “My dad said, ‘It’s not your time to focus on your business; it’s time to support your community,’” she says. “So I became an interpreter.”
Primarily working in legal and healthcare scenarios, Myint started selling meals to her interpretation clients — both the Burmese American clients and the doctors and lawyers she worked with. She still focused on developing her food business in the United States on the side; at the time, there were very few Burmese restaurants in Portland, if any. She slowly began to research ingredient sourcing, tracking down tea leaves and other components crucial to a Burmese pantry. Her son, Brandon Minsein, went to culinary school, and passed along the fundamentals of running a restaurant in the United States. But still, her father wanted her to move slowly, deliberately, before opening another restaurant. She took care of him until he died in 2018, and then pursued her culinary career in earnest.
Myint took her father’s advice and took her time. She started selling meals at farmers markets and found a space in the commissary kitchen at the Portland Mercado. “They supported me, I’m very thankful for that,” she says. “They gave me a lot of information.”
Through the pandemic, she sold Burmese dishes like braised pork belly with tea leaves, duck egg curry, and ohn htamin — coconut rice, which she served with a choice of chicken or braised beef curry — out of the Mercado for pre-order, eventually eyeing a space within the CORE building. She was intimidated by the financial investment, but after making a sacrifice for them when they were young, her family came through for her. “My kids have helped a lot,” she says. “When we decided to come here, it was so much money, but they said, ‘We’ll help you, Mommy.’”
The stall is still waiting on a few inspections, but Sandy Myint has a clear understanding of what she wants to serve. She’ll bring several dishes from the Mercado to the stall, including curries, salads, and soups. For her version of khow suey, she uses small, bony chickens often used in Myanmar, best to develop depth of flavor in broths. A rich fish noodle soup called mohinga — often considered Myanmar’s national dish — will join a variety of thokes (or salads), including a seasonal pennywort salad, ginger salad, and classic tea leaf salad. She’ll serve Burmese coffee from her home state, Shan, and Mandalay-grown tea, served alongside a variety of desserts — including mont let saung, just like the version she served when she was 10.
Sandy’s Myanmar Cuisine will open within CORE, at 3612 SE 82nd Avenue.