When Myo Lin Thway, 51, first came to the United States in 1994, he realized there weren’t any Burmese restaurants. He could readily find Chinese, Thai, Korean and Japanese food, but never Burmese. The cuisine of his beloved country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) was rarely represented in the New York dining scene, let alone in the rest of the country. However, Burmese food was special to Thway, especially palata, a Burmese flatbread made out of wheat flour, which is often difficult to make.
Thway recalls when he first learned how to make palata, he was young, and still living in Myanmar. His father worked in the food industry and hired a palata-maker to make the flatbreads for his business. Thway’s father thought it’d be easier — and more cost effective — if his son learned to make the flatbread.
Thway recalls observing intently and learning how to make palata. The ingredients were simple, just wheat flour, salt, a little bit of sugar and water. The mixture must make a dough that is not too soft or too tough. After it sits for 15 minutes, it must be pressed and pushed down to be flattened. The dough must then be repeatedly smacked on the table and thrown up in the air — like with pizza dough. The dough has to spread out as thin as it can be until it can no longer stretch. Finally, it’s folded like a little envelope and placed on the griddle and cooked with a bit of oil.
“I just had it in me,” Thway says. “I learned it quite quickly and since then I improved my skills through the church food fair every year, year after year. Now I would say that my palata is of very good quality.”
Thway was soon able to turn the palata into his specialty, his most popular dish is the keema palata, stuffed with minced chicken breast cooked in paprika oil and masala, mixed with onion, egg and cilantro. In the United States, Thway worked as a floor manager for an Italian jewelry company in New York City’s Diamond District but on the weekend’s he was Myanmar Baptist Church’s famous palata maker. The Queens church often hosted food fairs and Thway debuted his keema palata in 1995. He saw how much people liked his food, and thought that if people knew more about Burmese food, they would probably love it.
“My motto is that Burmese food is known throughout the world,” he says. “My aim is just to sell Burmese food, nothing else because everybody knows Thai food, Chinese food. Everybody knows Indian food, Vietnamese, Malaysia, everybody knows all those foods but Burmese food.”
He tried out his luck at the Queens Night Market in 2015 and people flocked to his booth, Burmese Bites. There, Thway began adding more dishes to the menu, like his famous tea leaf salad, known as lahpet thoke, made out of fermented tea leafs, lime, tomato, garlic, fish sauce chili and cabbage. Thanks to him, Burmese food was gaining a steady stream of fans, but his food was only at the market during the summers. Thway wanted something permanent.
He opened the Burmese Bites food cart In 2017 and parked it in Long Island City in front of what was then the CitiBank building. He was there three great years … until the pandemic hit.
“Once the pandemic hit, it went bad,” Thway recalls. “The CitiBank company was moved to downtown Manhattan, so I lost a lot of customers there. Number two, the pandemic hit and there was nobody on the street. I said ‘Okay. I don’t think I can do this any longer.’”
But Thway persisted in his quest to bring Burmese food to the masses. In November 2021, he and a close friend, opened up a location in the Queens Center Mall food court and have been there since. It’s been a little difficult to get people to try a cuisine they’ve never tried before, but Thway says he is on the right track.
“Some people say, ‘What kind of cuisine is that?’ I say ‘Burmese cuisine.’ Some people laugh at that, others ask me ‘No, what kind of food is that Chinese food or Indian food?’ I tell them it is from a small country called Myanmar but [a lot of people] don’t know where that is,” he says. “They have never tried my food before so they don’t know what to expect, and it’s very tough to convince them. But once they try it, most of them do like it and they become a return customer.”
Burmese Bites has amassed many loyal customers who now list Burmese food among their favorites. Adrianna, 46, worked for CitiBank in Long Island City before the pandemic and was thrilled to find Burmese Bites operating again.
“They had a cart in Long Island City and it was the best food I’ve ever tried. I had told all my friends about it and I had tracked them down because they closed down the cart. I figured out they were here. This is the first time [I found them again] I had been looking everywhere,” she says.
Clearly, Adrianna’s persistence in tracking the stall down paid off.
“The first thing I tried was the keema plata. But the curry potato rice dish is the best. The flavors are so bold and rich, I’ve never tasted it anywhere else,” she says. “It’s savory — it’s curry so it is smoky and spicy but not too spicy. It has chicken and the crispiness of the bread. So it’s the perfect balance of every flavor.”
Burmese Bites has also acquired many customers who work and frequent the mall. Oral Henry, 52, is a mall security guard who eats from Burmese Bites almost every day for lunch. His favorite thing about it: the keema palata.
“I first came here when they first launched, and I’ve been enjoying a meal from here abundantly every day. The only thing I don’t enjoy is on Sundays when they are not here,” he says. “I recommend everybody to come to this shop because the food is not greasy and everything is like ‘diet-stuff,’ everything is baked or cooked, it’s nice I can’t say anything more. It’s lovely.”
Aryanna Daniels, 26, first heard about Burmese Bites’ popularity at the Queens Night Market and decided to give it a try at the mall.
“I’m really into trying anything new and different. Apparently, they were a really popular stand and after reading about it, I wanted to follow up and try,” she says. “I first tried the Burmese tofu salad and I really enjoyed that. I liked that it wasn’t too salty and the ingredients were wholesome, neat and presentable but palatable. It was easy to eat, so I liked the quality of that.”
Little by little New Yorkers are getting to know Burmese food, and Thway believes that by keeping his food’s taste as authentic as can be, people will keep coming.
Burmese Bites at Queens Center Mall. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado
“A lot of people who own Burmese restaurants have to [change the recipes] to accommodate them for non-Burmese people, and authenticity gets lost in translation. I don’t want that to happen,” he says. “I just cook the way I like, I don’t cook the way [others] like, I cook the way I was taught. My wife who has been a backbone when it comes to cooking and I, do not compromise our recipes for the sake of having more customers. If we like it, then I’m sure they are going to like it too.”
Thway is cautiously optimistic about the future of his business.
“I don’t want to say it out too loud too soon, I got that a lot and I say the same answer: it’s just the beginning. This is a country full of opportunity, the sky’s the limit. I hope I grow,” he says.
You can find Burmese Bites within the Queens Center Mall food court, located at 90-15 Queens Boulevard. It is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and is closed on Sundays. On Wednesdays, Thway hosts “Burmese Nights,” where customers can get mohinga, a rice noodle and free sweet hot tea.
Mention Epicenter-NYC at Burmese Bites’ Queens Center Mall location and receive 10% off your order.