Food cravings can be hard to shake. The memory of the heady mixture of ginger salad — crunchy, toasty, astringent, pungent, salty — has stayed with me for two decades. I got hooked on it at the Bay Area’s small handful of Burmese restaurants, but I never found anything in Sacramento remotely like it.
Then a friend posted on social media about a restaurant his son had happened upon in Loomis. Green Elephant is the only restaurant I’ve heard of in our region where diners can sample the pleasures of Burmese cooking. If you haven’t tried it before — or if you have, and like me have felt the lack of ginger salad in your life — it’s worth a trip or a stop when you’re in the area.
The complex cuisine of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, aligns with its geographic location between eastern India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand. The nation of Myanmar has suffered repression and significant violence in its recent history, a sad legacy of suffering that may have had the side effect of rendering the national cuisine less well known in the West than that of its neighbors. Burmese cuisine shows the clear influences of bordering countries, but has its own distinctive flair, with an emphasis on textural contrasts and rich spicing.
Green Elephant also serves a variety of dishes from other Southeast Asian cuisines, including Thai, Indian and Malaysian, plus a few items that seem present to appease unadventurous diners, such as teriyaki chicken and fried calamari. But the more interesting dishes on the menu shouldn’t intimidate eaters unfamiliar with them.
Burmese curries are relatively gentle in heat but layered with spices, fish is highlighted (the Irrawaddy river delta dominates the country’s terrain), and bright salads — including a famous one based on fermented tea leaves — are reminiscent of the multitextured Indian street snacks called chaat, with lots of crunch and elusive, haunting flavors.
Rachel Phyu and Moe Thu, who together run the small restaurant, are both Burmese. Phyu works the front of the house as hostess and sole server, but also makes some items, like the head-clearing strong, hot, lightly sweet ginger “tea” (really an infusion), which I’ll go back for the next time there’s a dreary, rainy week of winter. Phyu, who has a gentle and welcoming manner toward all her guests, told me she steeps the ginger for over 24 hours.
Her grace and kindness set the tone for the restaurant, which is an unusually serene place to eat. Emerald-green walls stenciled with little golden elephants handily illustrate the name; elephants also show up in sequined art on black velvet. A soothing little fountain hides in one corner and golden owl statuettes stand watch in another. The small dining room began to fill up on our visits (there’s a second room that doesn’t appear to be in use), with many diners obviously regulars from the area.
When it’s full here, be prepared for service to slow. Phyu is good at communicating with guests about progress on their food, but this is a small, personal operation. The restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays, and weekends can be busy. I didn’t mind the measured pace, but diners in a hurry might feel frustrated.
Beverages might take the edge off. Mango lassi, sweet and smooth, will be familiar to many, as will aromatic Thai-style iced tea. Less commonly seen, but worth exploring, are a sweet-tart tamarind-lime drink as well as passionfruit lime and roasted coconut water. Alcohol — beer, sake and Bogle wine — seems like a bit of an afterthought by comparison.
I dove in first to a ginger salad, of course. It had a mild oil dressing, the crunch and savor of fried garlic and roasted cashews, pops of fried yellow split peas, cabbage and tomato, bright slices of sweet pepper, peanuts (Phyu solicitously asks diners about allergies), sesame seeds and threads of ginger. I couldn’t stop eating it.
There’s a list of other “Myanmar salads,” including another distinctive specialty, tea leaf salad, which was similar to the ginger salad, with a funky-tart flavor note from the tea leaves instead of a brightly pungent one from ginger.
Less familiar to me, but fantastic, was a chile-hot rainbow salad that included tofu, cabbage, toothsome wheat noodles in a slippery tangle with the dressing and a rococo fantasia of curly, pale-yellow fried ribbonlike rice noodles on top. There seemed to be dozens of elements in the salad, though it was oddly less rainbow-hued than the bright vegetal ginger salad (the chile in the dressing turned most things orange), though those fried rice noodles did reach for the skies. There’s nothing else like it in the area, and I wish I didn’t have to drive to Loomis to get it.
When the weather cools down, I’ll also come back for the soups. I loved Green Elephant’s version of laksa, a traditional Malaysian coconut curry soup with chicken, more of those ribbons of blistered fried rice noodles, and chicken falling-apart tender in the yellow curry broth. This rendition was milder than some, but if you’re sensitive to pungency look out — both here and in the curries — for thick-hewn slices of ginger, which are almost a signature in many of the restaurant’s dishes.
Mohingar, a traditional Burmese fish soup, was surprising and lovely. It’s traditionally eaten for breakfast in Myanmar, but works equally well in a dinner setting, with catfish and hard-cooked egg slices, plus slender rice noodles, swimming in broth redolent of lemongrass, ginger, garlic and onion.
Even the most basic soup was cooked with care. The chicken broth included with the lunch specials sounds unexciting and looks just like pale yellow liquid, a ho-hum side at many restaurants. At Green Elephant it’s astounding: complex, layered hints of lime, ginger, fried garlic, shallot, a few floating leaves of cilantro and green onion to lend aroma and the true taste of chicken coming through it all. We over-ordered at lunch on one visit, and Phyu insisted on packing up the extra broth for us to take home. Reader, I won’t lie: I drank all the leftovers cold from the fridge the next day. It’s that good, and I’d buy it by the quart if I could.
The Burmese-style curries Green Elephant offers were similarly precise in their layered flavors, though ginger was always a major note. A catfish curry, mildly spiced and oily, had delicate curry aromas. Phyu said she likes to mash the tender fish into the jasmine rice served alongside (the menu also offers basmati rice with saffron, but the kitchen was out of it on my visits). That sounded a bit like baby food, but tasted like heaven.
A pork curry with pickled mango, cooked long enough that the pork was ultratender, was dusky and earthy, shot through with a distinctively sour, almost metallic pickled flavor, with potatoes — common to most of the curries — also in the mix.
Burmese beef curry was analogous to a rich beef stew or braise (such as one with Guinness or prunes) from Western food traditions, deeply savory and comforting. Redolent of cinnamon and anise, its thick, dark flavors were brightened with the contrast of cherry tomatoes and slender crescents of red onion. It went well with roti, an oily Thai-style flatbread for scooping up the chunks of tender beef.
Non-Burmese choices on the menu include a version of butter chicken, that staple of Indian menus in America, here made with tender dark meat and an excellent less-sweet, less-rich sauce. Samosas, too, nodded to Myanmar’s western neighbor, with good spicing in the potato filling. Little lumpia, vegetable spring rolls that accompanied the lunch specials, were blander and rather unremarkable.
Thai-style curries and stir-fries abound on the longish menu, as well as basics like pad thai. I gravitated toward a dish I’ve not seen elsewhere, spicy meatballs — which proved to be zippily spiked with Thai chiles, wrapped in pastry, fried and set in a lake of sweet-hot chile sauce. If only every ho-hum tray of cocktail-party meatballs could be replaced with these.
I left Green Elephant sated and happy, delighted to have learned about the excellent cooking in this unlikely location. Now I have a local(ish) source not only for ginger salad, but for a wide assortment of carefully prepared, thoughtfully served dishes from Myanmar and its neighbors.
5911 King Road, Loomis; (916) 652-6325
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5-9 p.m. Saturday
Beverage options: Beer and wine are on offer, but the stars are the nonalcoholic drinks: tart tamarind-lime, sweet mango lassi and other housemade fruit drinks, plus the hot infused, ultra-strong ginger tea.
Vegetarian friendly: Reasonably so. There aren’t a lot of vegetarian entrees on the menu, but the kitchen will prepare many things veggie only, and salads and soups round out the options.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: Moderate; quiet conversation is possible.
Ambiance: Serene and tranquil, with prettier décor than the strip-mall location would lead you to expect: emerald and mustard walls, a trickling fountain, and sequined elephant wall hangings.
In an out-of-the-way strip mall in Loomis, of all places, this tiny, inviting mom-and-pop-style restaurant is serving up the complex, contrasting flavors of the only Burmese fare we know of in the region, as well as an array of well-prepared Southeast Asian dishes, making it an excellent find.
If you happen to love Burmese food — which comprises gentle curries, salads full of crunch and pop, and savory soups, bridging the gap between Indian and Thai — this small restaurant is worth the trip to Loomis or a stop en route to the Sierras. Don’t miss the fish curry or the ginger salad, and check out the many dishes, such as samosas and laksa, from other Southeast Asian cuisines.
Co-proprietor Rachel Phyu works the front of the house solo with a caring, kind approach, explaining the menu to newcomers and greeting return visitors warmly. When the tables fill up, food can come out a little slowly, since there’s just one cook in back; Phyu is communicative about delays.
Entrees, soups, and salads all run about $12 for filling, shareable portions of well cooked, from-scratch food. You can eat extremely well here for a modest price.