By Cheryce Berg, Volunteer
Tawk’s ambition is to bring a new taste to town.
Tea Leaves Salad does it. My friend Sasha and I start our meal at Pa Lian Burmese Restaurant in Wheaton sharing a plate of this popular dish made of “grounded tea leaf, fried yellow beans, fried lava beans, fried peanuts, sesame seeds, sliced tomatoes, cabbage and lime”. It is crunchy, salty, and full of flavor—a perfect complement to the tiny cups of hot green tea we are served.
I order Shan Noodle as my main dish: clear flat rice noodles topped by ground chicken curry and soy bean paste, with a bowl of chicken soup on the side. After my first spicy bite of the curry, Tawk instructs me to ladle the broth over the noodles and mix well. He also graciously hands me a fork when I hesitate at my ability to eat noodles with chopsticks. I love the contrast of the slippery noodles with the crunch of the topping.
Sasha orders Nangyi Thoke: a salad of thick rice noodles, ground chicken, sliced shallots, hard-boiled eggs, tamarind sauce, fish sauce, and fried onions, served with a small bowl of chicken soup. She describes it as “tasty and texturally interesting, with thick, hollow noodles that make a playful elastic feeling in my mouth that contrasts with the crisp fried shallots.” It is mild, tangy, and yummy—something she’d order again.
Tawk pauses in the quiet hours between the lunch and dinner crowds to sit and tell us his story while we eat.
He grew up in the old capital city of Burma, called Rangoon (Yangon). He doesn’t call himself Burmese but rather Chin, which names the state from which his family comes. He obtained a civil engineering degree but soon learned that education didn’t matter to employers. Details such as parentage, religion, ethnicity, and birthplace topped all other qualifications.
Tawk eventually fled the persecution of a militaristic government and came here seeking political asylum, hoping for a safe place and a better life. He immediately began work at a Whole Foods deli every day of the week for twelve hours a day. He credits his deli friends as the best teachers he ever had, as they had the task of growing his textbook English to fluency. They also introduced him to American food. His favorite? Tuna salad, eaten on rice instead of bread. But he can’t stand one of our most iconic dishes: macaroni and cheese.
“I really appreciate those times. I will never forget it,” he says of his deli friends and early season of hard work at Whole Foods. He still goes back to visit them and they tell him with pride: “You made it.”
Tawk later began work as a case manager for World Relief, where he learned how to teach fellow refugees and immigrants how to survive in America. His message to them? You don’t need to adopt the American culture, but you need to learn about it. Explore and respect it and you will gain friends.
His work with Chin youth at church has shown him the widening gap between them and their parents. He boldly tells their parents: “Keep your culture but don’t mentally imprison your kids. They are changing; you have to change, too. Even if you don’t want to eat macaroni and cheese, you have to know what it is or you will lose connection with your kids. You can’t stop them from changing.”
Yet he continues to teach his own two little children the Chin language of Hakha, as well as cooking Burmese food for them at home.
Tawk knows the value of hard work. He says, “Don’t pray for things without doing anything. Appreciate the blessing and do something with it.” He knows that immigrants and refugees need courage—courage to get the education they need here and courage to work hard to survive.
Tawk has modeled hard work and courage. He and his wife saw family members opening small grocery stores and restaurants in Dallas and Indianapolis and decided to take the chance themselves. They spent a year renovating this space before opening their doors, which are now open six days a week from morning until night. They also provide carry-out and catering.
We ask him to tell us more about the food. He launches into an explanation of Burmese history—how their food was impacted by Indian and Chinese people brought to Burma by the Japanese in World War II. Burmese food relies heavily on onion, garlic, ginger, Thai hot peppers, Burmese kimchee, rice and noodles. They incorporate all kinds of meat as well: chicken, beef, pork, and seafood. Their dishes are spicy, salty, and sometimes sour—but within the realm of what a tamer American tongue can savor and appreciate.
Tawk does an excellent job explaining the dishes on the extensive menu. He plans to add ice cream flavored with mango and coconut as well as tea leaf cheesecake as dessert options. He says his most popular items are the curries, fried rice, noodle salads, and soups. He does all of the serving because he wants to explain each food to the customers, while teaching them about his country.
Pa Lian saw many Burmese customers the first month it opened, followed by a mix of Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, and Americans. Tawk sees at least twenty of the same customers return a few times each week for fried rice and tea leaves salad.
What is the most rewarding thing about owning the restaurant? Tawk answers this question with pride. “We bring a totally new taste. New flavors to town. People say, ‘We never had that before. Your food is so good. We are so glad you are here.’ They encourage me.”
Yet at the same time he admits that he is tired. He also gives us a brief glimpse into the loneliness and isolation he feels in American culture, which may be part of the drive behind creating a restaurant to connect different cultures over a shared love of new food.
Sasha and I finish our meal sharing a glass of fresh lime juice mixed with water and lightly sweetened with sugar. It is a perfect end to the explosion of flavors from our dishes.
As we prepare to go, Tawk reminds us of his mission. “It’s not only about the business. Our heart is to bring new food to the town and impact the community. Learn about Burma: our culture and our food, too.”
“My place is a place for connections,” he adds. He’s right. I have discovered a new friend and new food at Pa Lian, and I’ll be back.