TURNING OVER A NEW TEA LEAF SALAD: Sweet Mango's version adds lettuce to the traditional mix.

Finding a new type of cuisine is equivalent to finding a new adult playground. There is rapture involved in the pursuit of nondescript hole-in-the-wall places with uncharted taste profiles. This exploratory spree pays off when one discovers a dish whose flavors hit the tongue like fireworks. That being said, while Indian and Thai dishes have settled into the culinary mainstream, diners are begging for a new cuisine to break the thresholds of the foodie landscape. Burmese food—which balances rich, tangy and spicy—is one of the top contenders.

It was with enthusiasm, then, that I stepped into Sweet Mango in Willow Glen for an introduction of this sought-after cuisine. The sign said “Chinese and Burmese Food” which is typical, as Burma is wedged between China and India and twists facets from both into its cuisine.

First up was the Tea Leaf Salad ($9.95). “Thoke” (pronounced “toe”), or salads, are distinctive in Burma. The ingredients are arranged in separate piles on the plate and abundantly seasoned—a smorgasbord of raw and cooked vegetables, herbs, toasted nuts, seeds, and even dried pork cracklings or shrimp. Sometimes these ingredients are mixed with lettuce or cabbage, which remains an area of controversy among Burmese food lovers. Sweet Mango’s rendition lost some points because, although it seemed impassioned, I couldn’t get over the fact that its main filler was iceberg lettuce. Luckily, the salty, fermented tea leaves added that little combativeness that I craved. The lettuce was forgivable because I was so enchanted by the intermingling of consistencies; each bite had exciting architecture. It was addicting and I’d order it again—and I’m not even a salad lover.

Next came the Burmese fried rice ($8.95) and the cumin lamb ($12.50). The Burmese rice, radiantly yellow from the turmeric, was good but not especially titillating. For those who love intensity, the generous portion of lamb was nutty, peppery and an aromatic must for the table. I don’t know how you could not like this dish. The mango chicken at $9.95 was saucy and resplendent with thick slices of ripened mango—Burmese proverbs exalt mango. It was tasty, but if I didn’t know what it was, I don’t think I’d immediately think “that’s mango chicken.” I guess I was looking for something that crystallized the mango flavor in a new way. We left markedly full with plenty to take home, as Sweet Mango is big-hearted with its portions. The meal was a fun glimpse of a new cuisine, anchored with some foundational Burmese dishes, but a desire for more definition in the South Bay looms.

Sweet Mango
1040 Willow St., San Jose; 408.293.2268