Monday, September 25, 2017

Review: Cal-Mex cuisine comes home to Botahtaung

Chef Jay Yang may have been previously known to few in Yangon, but that’s about to change. The CIA-trained chef – no, the other one: the Culinary Institute of America – is the creative mind behind KK Pots, formerly one of the best-kept culinary secrets in Yangon for well-balanced Asian favourites and one bangin’ burger. Not bad for a neighborhood hotpot joint.

AJ’s syrups and infusions make the prospect of drinking yet another mojito in Yangon exciting. Photos: Eli Meixler / The Myanmar TimesAJ’s syrups and infusions make the prospect of drinking yet another mojito in Yangon exciting. Photos: Eli Meixler / The Myanmar Times

Now Yang has taken his burger to the larger space upstairs, where he’s trying out his own takes on American cuisine and cocktails, some classic, some his own. The results are worth getting excited about.

A note to readers is perhaps merited at this point: This review is going to rely on “American” as a descriptor. That’s not to say that “American” denotes “the best”, or even “better”, but it’s unmistakably it’s over-sized own – you know it when you see it.

“American” fare is interpreted fairly widely here – burgers and ribs share menu space with tacos and Mexican-style street corn – but all exhibit the same thoughtful attention to flavour, deft command of technique and respect for high-quality ingredients.

But first, a quick word on the space. On the second floor of Queen’s Park Hotel, AJ’s can feel a bit cavernous when sparsely populated. There is a lot of wood, a looming ceiling and expansive side windows that permit excellent urban street-watching. But the playlist features a heavy mix of jazz and Buena Vista Social Club, making AJ’s easily one of the most comfortable spaces in the city for a casual drink.

About those drinks. The menu is short and heavily weighted toward the classics, but Yang reinvigorates them with inventive creations of his own. And he isn’t shy about using the good stuff – Grey Goose in the martini, Wild Turkey bourbon in the Old Fashioned – and bar staff pour as generously as you might at home (no judgements). The Old Fashioned in particular is perfectly executed – a thick glass of whisky, an orange peel and, in this case, house-made coriander syrup. The Moscow Mule, a prickly concoction with just enough sweet, is spiked with homemade ginger syrup and a hunk of the root. Price points may deter some (cocktails are K5000-7000), but there may not be a better destination for imaginative drinks without the

As for the food: the eponymous burger, which we have extolled in the past – with imported American beef and double-fried “McDonald’s-style” fries – is now available in six variations, and all are excellent. We recommend it with barbecue sauce and (real, streaky, American) bacon. The pulled pork, with apple-studded coleslaw, is also a stand-out.

AJ's burger ranks among the best in Yangon – and now it's joined by chicken and pulled pork sandwiches. Photo: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar TimesAJ's burger ranks among the best in Yangon – and now it's joined by chicken and pulled pork sandwiches. Photo: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar Times

But the burger is hardly all. Chicken wings are a superb union of juicy, tender meat and crispy skin, slathered again in a more-sweet-than-spicy barbecue sauce. Even corn-on-the-cob gets the gourmet ingredient treatment: sous-vide first, then grilled, and topped with parmesan, chilli and cilantro. It’s a micro-expression of Yang’s method, bringing high-end culinary techniques to bear on a humble street snack, and the results are

The taco trio is tasty and precisely executed, but also, most importantly, filling.The taco trio is tasty and precisely executed, but also, most importantly, filling.

Yang has had his share of Mexican food, and the tacos (three for K9000) show it. For the carnitas, pork is brined, then cooked slow at low temperature – nearly confit-ed – until it’s ready to be torn apart, drizzled with a roasted pepper-garlic puree and sour cream (homemade – did you even need to ask?). It’s almost a shame to shove it in your mouth – but not quite. As for its companions: Meaty chunks of shrimp are complemented by sweet corn to conjure memories of seaside summers, but it’s the carne asada that prove the plutonic pair for cabbage slaw and pico de gallo. And they aren’t lowered like gemstones onto precious, dime-sized tortillas like those served up at some other Yangon establishments (they know who they are) – the tacos are the real, three-bite deal, and worth every

“Angry chicken” may make your taste buds a bit more perplexed than affronted.“Angry chicken” may make your taste buds a bit more perplexed than affronted.

If you arrive with an outsized appetite, angry chicken (K9000) is a pair of juicy fillets over roasted potatoes, eggplant and cherry tomatoes, though in this gringo’s opinion, the “angry sauce” could use a little more ire and the chicken wouldn’t blush at a few more minutes to render off the fat and crisp up the skin. Or dive right in with the ribs – a giant portion of Flintstones-ready pork ribs and a pile of those deadly

There’s only one dessert on the menu, but in true form it’s a homemade chocolate lava cake (K3500). Like everything else on the menu, it’s perfectly executed, if a bit too small for sharing, not that you’ll want to when you taste it. With more dishes in the works – a quesadilla made a recent menu introduction, and there are plans for burritos and a possible brunch service (huevos ranchos fans, start praying now … ), there is a lot more to look forward to coming out of Jay Yang’s kitchen. Don’t miss it.

AJ’s Bar & Grill
132 Bo Myat Htun Street and Anawratha Road (inside Queen’s Park Hotel), Botahtaung township
Open only for dinner, 5-11:30pm

Restaurant Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Food: 9
Drinks: 8
Service: 7
Value: 8
X-factor: 5
Tax sticker: Yes