A restaurant with roots in St. Paul’s Karen community is set to open in the former Marc Heu space
A new restaurant is readying open in the former Marc Heu Patisserie space in Frogtown. Mandalay Kitchen, from chef and owner Chris Tunbaw, weaves together Burmese, Thai, and Karen cuisines, serving up tea leaf salad, Bangkok-style boat noodles, steaming bowls of mohinga (a peppery catfish chowder, the unofficial Burmese national dish) and — last but not least — a chapli-patty Juicy Lucy smeared with avocado-Dijon mayo.
Tunbaw knows Frogtown well. He was raised in Myanmar until age 10, when his family emigrated to Minnesota and settled down in the neighborhood. Tunbaw is Karen (pronounced Kah-ren), a member of one of Myanmar’s biggest ethnic groups. His father was a freedom fighter with the Karen National Union, which has fought for Karen self-determination since circa 1948, when Myanmar gained independence from Britain. Tunbaw and his family escaped the country’s brutal military dictatorship in 1996, fleeing first to Thai refugee camps before they resettled in the U.S. (That same dictatorship renamed Burma as Myanmar, though both names are still in use.) Today, there are more than 20,000 Karen Minnesotans.
In Myanmar, Tunbaw’s family lived in a somewhat remote area of the jungle, a KNU-controlled territory near the border with Thailand. His mother ran a convenience store with a restaurant front. “It was seclusive, so when we needed supplies, my mom had to travel to Thailand,” Tunbaw says.“When we fled Myanmar because of the civil war conflict and ended up in Thailand, I fell in love with Thai food.” Later on, growing up in Frogtown, he ate at the wealth of Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, and Lao restaurants in the neighborhood, aspiring to one day open his own.
Tunbaw started down that path last year — he and his girlfriend, Abby Kroll, bought a sugarcane juicer and carted it around to regional festivals and fairs to fundraise for the restaurant. (“We ended up in a newspaper in Huron, South Dakota,” Tunbaw laughs.) Fast forward to spring of this year, when Marc Heu Patisserie relocated from Frogtown to a new spot at Selby and Dale. Tunbaw happened to know the space’s owner — she’s his hairstylist. “She was like, ‘Want to give it a try?’” says Tunbaw. “So I’m here now, pursuing my dream.” Kroll and his family support him in the restaurant, including his sister Christine Tunbaw, who cooks.
Mandalay doesn’t limit itself to one cuisine: It weaves together Southeast Asian, American, and even South Asian influences (there are small, Burmese-style samosas on the menu). But Tunbaw wanted to specifically highlight Karen and Burmese dishes, which — though there are a number of longstanding, beloved markets and restaurants around the metro, from Friends Cafe to Kyaw Karen Market — are relatively harder to track down in the Cities’ diverse Southeast Asian food scene. “You can go to a pho restaurant and that’s Vietnamese food, or you can go to get pad thai and that’s Thai food,” says Thunbaw. ‘But you can’t get a mohinga, you can’t find nan gyi thoke, which is a thicker noodle with chicken curry. I wanted to create a menu specific for Myanmar — plus Thailand and maybe a little bit of what I learned to love here.”
Hence the Juicy Lucy. “I grew up eating chapli patties back home,” says Tunbaw. (Myanmar, being the closest Southeast Asian country to India, is home to many South Asian cultural influences.) “My mom used to fry up beef patties with different spices and yogurt sauce. So I wanted to have more of a yogurty sauce with Japanese mayo, French Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and avocado.”
Mandalay also serves a tea leaf salad. Myanmar is one of the few countries where tea leaves are eaten whole — in the salad, Tunbaw says, they’re fermented and mixed with crunchy fried peanuts and fresh cabbage, tomatoes, and onions. Fish sauce and lime add a little punch. The knyaw pumpkin curry is a traditional Karen dish. “A lot of families would have a yard that has a variety of gardens and veggies,” says Tunbaw. “People would build a bamboo roof where the pumpkin can grow and hang — pumpkin is abundant in Myanmar.” As far as the mohinga goes, preparations vary by region, Tunbaw says. Mandalay’s version is from Myanmar’s mountainous area, made with ample galangal, a spice in the ginger family. There are many other dishes on the menu, too, from banana rolls and samosas to a fried sea bass platter.
Tunbaw envisions Mandalay as more than a restaurant, though. Upstairs, there’s a market for traditional Karen clothing and goods. Last week, before even opening to the public, Mandalay hosted a meeting of Urban Village, a Karen and Karenni nonprofit that supports local youth. “Mandalay is an area in Burma — it’s a diverse, multi-cultural city,” says Tunbaw. “There are a lot of ethnic groups in Myanmar that have been in conflict. We don’t get along due to cultural and religious reasons. I want to create a little hub here in St. Paul, a community gathering per se, so that Mandalay Kitchens is a little home for Burmese Karen people in St. Paul.” Look for a grand opening on Friday, November 3.