LocationAlhambra , CA United States
Under its current owner Z Gyung Lam, Yoma Myanmar restaurant in Monterey Park has been serving the community authentic, flavorful Myanmar food for over a decade.
Myanmar food is known for its strong flavors. While different ethnic groups within the country have their own unique cooking styles, rice based dishes are very common, whether served with curry or made into rice noodles. Another popular dish is salad, which is usually made with a wide variety of flavorful, unconventional ingredients like pork ear or preserved egg to add taste to simpler foods.
“In Burmese food, a lot of flavor is sour, salty and tasty all coming together,” Lam said.
Lam is an immigrant from Myanmar who belongs to the Kachin ethnic minority group, which is predominantly Christian.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, saw the end to a military rule in 2011. However, religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims continue to face persecution at the hands of the Buddhist majority. Recently, almost a million Rohingya Muslims have fled the country to avoid ethnic cleansing by Myanmar’s military.
According to Lam, Christians like her found it very difficult to hold stable and safe jobs in Myanmar because of discrimination. Lam was not given the opportunity to do what she wanted, which was to work for the government.
“In America, whatever you want to do, you can do,” Lam said. “In Burma, it’s not like that. That’s why I wanted to go abroad.”
When Lam was 30 years old, she was given a chance to go to Japan. She took this opportunity and studied there before finally coming to the United States in 2005. She worked at Yoma Myanmar under its previous owner but had plans to quit after a few months. She wanted to pursue studying in America in hopes of working in a government position; however, her plans changed and she ended up buying the restaurant a year later.
“While I was working here, a lot of people came to check out this restaurant because it was for sale,” Lam said. “This was a Burmese restaurant and those who wanted to buy it were not Burmese. Then it came up in my mind, if other people buy it… we’re going to lose this Burmese restaurant.”
Almost 12 years later, Lam is proud to operate one of the few restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley that serves authentic Myanmar food. Because the previous owner was Myanmar Chinese, the menu used to contain several non-Myanmar dishes, which Lam cut out. She altered the menu to contain mostly Myanmar dishes, with the exception of two Thai dishes. The restaurant’s previous name included Thai, but Lam also changed the name, even if the sign on the storefront is outdated.
“I don’t want to do anything Americanized,” Lam said. “I want [the restaurant] to be all authentic.”
Named by the original owner after the Rakhine Yoma mountains in western Myanmar, Yoma Myanmar’s most popular dishes include goat curry, tea leaf salad and Shan noodles, a dish composed of rice noodles and chicken in a clear broth. The restaurant’s curry dishes are prepared in advance, as the process takes about three hours. Other dishes, like the spicy fried catfish, are made to order.
Lucas Lee, a resident of the San Gabriel Valley and a loyal customer of Yoma Myanmar for over a decade, visits the restaurant at least once a month. He emigrated from Myanmar about 45 years ago and considers eating at Yoma Myanmar a connection to his home country. The friendly staff, made up mostly of immigrants from Myanmar, and the authentic dishes remind him of home.
“Usually I order a curry dish or a lunch special,” Lee said. “[I still miss] the native dishes from Burma. This is a very good restaurant, the food is excellent and they treat customers very nice.”
While Lam knew some basic Myanmar dishes before she left her home country, much of her cooking skills were learned while she was in the United States. She is motivated to run her restaurant in hopes of having more people appreciate Myanmar cuisine.
“A lot of people don’t know what Burmese food is,” Lam said. “I want everyone to love it.”
Aurora Zeng is an Alhambra Source summer intern and a rising senior at Mark Keppel High School.