Back in February I received an alarming e-mail from a friend in Mandalay telling me that my favorite restaurant in town, Aye Myit Tar, was gone. Gone? What did he mean? Closed, moved, burned down, or what exactly? Well, my friend replied, it’s not in the old location any longer. In fact, the building where the restaurant had been located was just demolished!
The thought of Mandalay without Aye Myit Tar was too disturbing for words. I love this restaurant. It may not serve the finest meals in town, but they are perhaps the most filling. Plus, when you combine the tasty cuisine with the attentive service and friendly vibe, nothing else ranks higher on my list of places to eat in Mandalay. I like the food — oily curries and all — but the service is so attentive that it borders on the comical. It’s not uncommon to have three or four waiters waiting on my table … and I often dine there alone.
When I arrived in Mandalay I ran into another friend, Mr. Htoo, the first afternoon. Mr. Htoo is a driver for hire (take your pick: motorcycle or trishaw, he’ll even arrange to rent a car for you) and is a fountain of knowledge about all things Mandalay. So, one of my first questions to him was: What happened to Aye Myit Tar? Instead of replying, he whipped out a business card with the restaurant’s name and their new address printed on it: they are now located on 81st Street, between 29th and 30th Streets, only three blocks from my hotel!
There isn’t a whole lot of variety on the menu at Aye Myit Tar. It’s almost like something from a Monty Python show: you have your choice of curry, curry with chicken, curry with beef, curry with curry, curry with mutton, curry with prawn, or curry with curry spam and curry. But it’s the side dishes that really make the meal complete … and fill you up in the process. With each curry dish you get side orders of various vegetables, salads, and a soup of the day. And the waiters don’t hesitate to bring out second and third helpings if they notice I’m enjoying a particular dish. More beans, more soup, more tomato salad, some more rice? Sure! Once again, visions of a Monty Python skit come to mind; just one little wafer-thin mint (or in this case, a bite of tea leaf salad) is liable to tip me over the edge and dislodge the contents of my stomach all over the walls.
The waiters at Aye Myit Tar are a hard-working bunch, to put it mildly. Most of them come from very poor families and have had to drop out of school (some while still in their early teens) in order to earn extra money for their family. They all live on the premises, sleeping upstairs, and eating most of their meals there too. They are usually up at the crack of dawn, cleaning the restaurant, cutting up vegetables and doing other food prep. By late morning they are serving lunch and don’t stop work until evening diners have left around 10 pm. They work every day of the week, with only an occasional day or two off a few times each year when they return home (most come from a small town near Monywa, which is where the owner is from also) to visit their families. So if you happen to eat at Aye Myit Tar, don’t forget to tip these guys. They deserve it!
The waiters at Aye Myit Tar are extremely diligent and polite, but they also aren’t shy about asking me to take their photo. And one click invariably leads to a couple of dozen shots. I always tip my regular waiters well and make it a habit of bringing them small gifts from Bangkok each time I visit. As is the Myanmar way, they reciprocate with gifts for me; they might chip in and pay for my dinner, bring me free plates of fresh fruit or a cup of coffee, or give me a gift of a new longyi. I’m always tempted to leave town without telling them, just to avoid a final night of goodbye gifts, but I enjoy their company too much to do something sneaky like that.
On my first night in town, I invited Mr. Htoo to eat with me. When you order a bottle of Myanmar Beer they now have this “bonus” under each bottle cap. Sometimes it’s a discount off a meal, sometimes you get a free beer, but usually it’s just a note saying “Thank You” (“Che Zu Tin Ba De”). I got lucky the first night, winning a free bottle of beer, and before week was out, after another five visits, I claimed a second free bottle at Aye Myit Tar. Needless to say, I drank a lot of beer that week.