More than a decade ago, a modest donut shop was transformed into a Burmese restaurant with a lot of family love and a little fear. Today, Mandalay Restaurant & Cafe is a place that still celebrates family closeness, taking chances and customer loyalty.
"The people we have here are family," said Aung Myint, one of the owners. "The customers that come in here are amazing."
Myint points out Joe at one of the tables. He became a regular at the restaurant when it was still located in College Park. Over in a booth, there is Amanda Sarata. She used to frequent the old location while pregnant with her first child. Sarata and her husband remained patrons when Mandalay moved to 930 Bonifant St. in downtown Silver Spring in 2004. Her son, Eric is now a fan.
"We started bringing him probably when he was about three. He loves the Tofu Kabat Gyaw," said Sarata, a Silver Spring resident. "That is his favorite, and it is something he will eat without fail."
Sarata still orders her favorite Noodle #1, LetThoke Sone. The mixed noodle dish is made with fried tofu, potato, onion and cabbage. It is served room temperature with a Burmese dressing and topped with fried onion and carrot strips.
Myint was confident that his mom's Burmese recipes would attract a following when he opened that donut shop in 1999. He was a lot less certain about succeeding in the restaurant business or asking his mother to leave her chef's job. They had limited capital, but a shared conviction that cuisine from a country (now known as Myanmar) sharing borders with India, China and Thailand would win over diners.
"Mom's cooking is amazing, so we just figured why not put her out there," said Myint. "We had a family meeting and decided if we are going to do this, we've got to go all the way in."
His mother did jump in when her son started selling donuts from the College Park shop in the mornings and a few Burmese dishes during the afternoons and evenings. The two would roll the donut machine, equipment and supplies aside to cook for restaurant customers. Then, they would clean up and put everything back for the five a.m. donut crew.
"In July of 2000, we started adding the Burmese menu to it slowly. About six months in after the restaurant took off, we got rid of the donut shop," Myint added.
Today, Myint shares ownership of Mandalay with his mom, Hla Hme, his dad, Saw Myint, and his two brothers, Kyaw and Saw Myint, Jr. His wife, Mar, is a chef at Mandalay and their 9-year-old daughter, Wint, is well-known to regulars.
"Now days, she is wandering around here, and she's greeting customers," said Myint. "She knows a handful of customers that she'll actually go sit at their table and have dinner or have a conversation with them."
Myint sees the blossoming of his daughter's social skills as just one of the benefits owning Mandalay has produced. In his mind, the restaurant's success happened much quicker and is much sweeter than he could have imagined.
"If you had told me 11 years ago that I would have a successful restaurant and be building a second location, I would not have believed you," said Myint.
Wait! A second location? Check Bites Nearby tomorrow to find out about the new Mandalay as well as what makes Burmese food different from other Asian cuisines.