‘I Think Burmese Food Is the Best of All Worlds’
Owner, Bandoola Bowl
1069 Wisconsin Avenue
At 9 am every morning, the Myint family cleared the remaining doughnuts out of their College Park shop. By 11, they were serving Burmese food.
Mandalay was once the oddest restaurant in the DMV—and it worked.
‘I’d been in the restaurant business since I was 18, and when I turned 25, I found this doughnut shop for sale,’ says Aung, the youngest of three boys. ‘I wanted my own restaurant, and this was the cheapest way to do it—rolling in the restaurant equipment every single day on casters, connecting and disconnecting everything.’
Born in Yangon, Myanmar (formally known as Burma), Aung immigrated to Montgomery County when he was 16. His mom helped open the first Burmese restaurant in the region, where she worked for nine years before leaving to support Aung’s dream at Mandalay.
After 18 months operating a café by day and restaurant by night, Aung did away with the doughnuts and focused strictly on Burmese. The next four years were largely a success, but Aung was new to the restaurant business and the intricacies of a lease—agreeing to go year-to-year in College Park. When the space was unexpectedly sold, he had six months to relocate.
‘We ended up opening a bigger restaurant in downtown Silver Spring that did very well for 15 years, but that entire time I was telling my family, ‘What if we only did a salad and soup shop?’ I couldn’t convince them. They all said it’s hard enough that people don’t know anything about Burmese food—we’re not going to make it if we only go in one direction. But after 15 years, the restaurant was hard on the family and everyone was getting older. Then of course sweetgreen and Chop’t took off, and finally everybody said let’s do this.’
Aung hired a broker, who found two spaces, including one south of M Street on Wisconsin Avenue. With a soft spot for Georgetown and a sense of what was missing from its fast-casual scene, he didn’t bother looking at the other location.
‘I used to consult for i-Thai in Georgetown, and whenever I’d go out for lunch, there wasn’t anything quick that was Asian. For an Asian guy, you can only do so much Chipotle and burgers.’
Exhausted by the 100-item menu in Silver Spring, Aung’s concept for Bandoola Bowl was far simpler. Ten salads, five dressings, nothing more. As soon as it opened in April, Aung knew he’d gone in the right direction.
‘Burmese food is foreign enough that even with 10 set salads, people still stare at the menu and don’t know what to do. We’re coaching them on what to get. I thought that would be annoying to our customers, but it’s been amazing. Everybody sees it as an added service, and all the reviews talk about that. We’d only planned for quality control, and simplifying choices, but now it seems like a genius idea.’
For those unfamiliar with both the country and the cuisine, Aung says Burma sits right in the middle—south of China, north of Thailand, and east of India—pulling from each country in its own unique way.
‘Our food is a melting pot, and it’s milder and more palatable for people who aren’t usually into Southeast Asian food. There are still quite a lot of people who are very, very scared with curry. They think it’s going to be very strong. Burmese curry is very mild and balanced, and onion-based. And our stir fry has a little more flavor to it than the blander, more soy sauce-based Chinese variety. Maybe I’m stepping on a lot of toes, but I think Burmese is taking the best of all worlds.’
Aung has 25 years’ experience serving these native dishes, but says he still can’t touch his mother’s cooking. Perhaps it’s as much the skill as it is the love and nostalgia that comes with every meal.
‘We have a mother who is quite amazing and there are a few things she makes that always make me feel like a kid again. She makes this egg curry where she boils the eggs, slices them in half really nice and clean, and cooks them in an onion-based curry. That’s a dish that I drop everything to go eat. I’ve duplicated it thousands of times, and my wife and daughter will be like it’s close enough, but I’ll taste it and know it’s not Mom’s. I think she purposefully makes that egg curry on holidays so that we come home. She’s over 70 years old, and there’s something about her touch that I can’t duplicate.’
Customers can sense that family bond when they walk into Bandoola Bowl, a space as minimalist as the menu, except for the multi-generational family photos adorning the walls upstairs.
Aung was expecting a harder sell in Georgetown, and is shocked the first six months have gone so well.
‘Three months in, Bandoola Bowl was already where I wanted it to be a year from now. How people talk about it, how they accept us. Some customers are coming twice a week, and have gone through the menu twice over. It was a good decision to come here.’
For all of Aung’s claims that age is catching up to him, he’s already preparing to open an Asian bbq concept called Sticx just north of Book Hill. Simple, quality food will remain the focus, playing to a fast-casual scene rooted in his Burmese home.
‘The food stalls and street vendors have been in Southeast Asia for thousands of years. They do one item, and they’re really good at it. We’re just adapting it here.’