Downtown Buffalo’s menu boasts sushi again, plus Burmese and Thai soups, salads, noodles and rice dishes. The news doesn’t seem to have gotten around, though, judging from the skimpy crowds at 302 Main St., where Rakhapura Restaurant is playing Asian best hits to crickets.
Get it while you can, because the current crowd numbers don’t look robust enough to pay Main Street rent.
Then food television celebrity Alton Brown stopped by before his April 6 show, and tweeted to his 4.4 million followers: “if you live in a day’s drive of Buffalo, you should be eating here.”
How we got here is that Burmese immigrants Khain Thein and Win Shwe sold sushi, soup and salad at West Side Bazaar for years, then moved out to Main Street. Rakhapura is an ancient kingdom in what is now called Myanmar, home to the Arakanese people.
Several months ago they sold the business to fellow Arakanese Soe Win and Elizabeth Sher, who run a bazaar kiosk selling bubble tea, lotus flower cookies, samosas and other snacks.
People are also reading…
Now Sher is in the kitchen of a cavernous space stretching from Main Street to Cathedral Park. A previous generation of immigrants operated there last, Greek diner-ish restaurant Olive & Ivy, and Vasilis. Sher’s cooks include One Thammasithikoun, owner of the late lamented Gourmet Lao Foods, another West Side Bazaar graduate.
For years I’ve schemed to get Buffalo’s daytime lunchers to stop by West Side Bazaar. Instead, the Bazaar came to them.
The obvious attractions include freshly made sushi that beats picking up a refrigerated supermarket version.
Standards like tuna and avocado, spicy tuna and salmon rolls ($6.99) were on target. California (imitation crab, cucumber, avocado, $4.99), Lincoln (apple, green bean, cucumber, tofu, $6.99), and garden veggie (green bean, bell pepper, tofu, $4.99) are light bites.
Whether Americanized sushi, chonky boi rolls bedazzled with more layers, lacquered sauces and crunchy crumbs, count as a light lunch or an entrée depends on your appetite.
Rakhapura’s American roll ($9.99) is a prime example of these girthy blockbusters. A snow crab mantle is drizzled with sweet and spicy sauces around a core of crab salad and rice, with cucumber, slivered jalapeño and seaweed salad, punctuated with toasty sesame seeds. It’s essentially a rice bowl reformatted as finger food.
Even more engaging, the crunch roll ($9.99) has a savory heart of tempura shrimp, buttery avocado and crab salad, sweet and spicy sauces and tufted with fried onions that reminded me of Thanksgiving green bean casserole.
Who doesn’t like a nice salad for a lunch? Rakhapura is serving some dillies from the Burmese and Thai canon.
Green papaya salad ($8.99, with shrimp $9.99) is a stone-cold stunner, bracingly sour vegetal shreds of unripe fruit dressed in lime fish sauce with tomatoes, carrot, green bean, cucumber and lettuce. A tangle of plain rice noodles, stirred in as desired to dilute intensity, serves the same role in deadening heat as reactor control rods.
Then there’s the vegan Burmese blockbuster called lapeth thoke, or tea leaf salad ($8.99). Fermented like sauerkraut instead of dried for beverage use, the olive-drab leaves are tossed with diced tomato, fried seeds and nuts, shredded cabbage and peanuts, tarted up with lime juice, and glossed with garlic oil. Munch on it straight up or mix it half-and-half with rice for a minor meal.
My fervor for pushing tea leaf salad on unsuspecting visitors has only been strengthened by the 100% receptivity rate. It’s even gluten-free.
Despite my mentioning tea leaf lettuce in 46 Buffalo News articles since 2011, Alton Brown had never heard of it. I was shocked, too.
He caught up. After posting a photo of Rakhapura dishes, a reader asked “Where is the tea leaf salad?”
“It was already gone at that point,” Brown replied. “Allll gonnnne.”
He also dug the butter bean curry ($8.99), so creamy after long, patient cooking that for the first time I understood how they got their name.
Other Burmese adventures abound. Palata roti ($14.99), with beef curry, provides flaky griddled bread to dunk in the dark, mild masala of ginger and shallot.
“Arakanese adolescence” ($8.99) is not a typo. It’s lemongrass chicken broth simmered with calabash, also known as bottle gourd, a vegetable prized for its rejuvenating health effects. It doesn’t taste powerful, more like meek and mild, between cucumber and squash, but with tomatoes and sliced chicken breast, it’s a lovely bowl of soup.
Adventurous eaters should ask for balangchuang, a dry spice-and-more mixture Burmese sprinkle to jazz up any situation, even plain rice, like Japanese furikake. This mixture is far kickier, including more chile, and fried garlic, over a bass funk of roasted ground shrimp paste.
Settle in at the table overlooking Main Street, an enjoy some of the best Buffalo has to offer: the all-American lunch combo of soup and salad, updated by some of the newest Americans.
302 Main St. (rakhapurarestaurant.com, 716-308-7640)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Prices: starters, $4.99-$14.99; sushi, $4.99-$12.99; soup, $7.99-$10.99; salads, $4.99-$13.99.
Atmosphere: quiet and spacious
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten free: many choices
Send restaurant tips to [email protected] and follow @BuffaloFood on Instagram and Twitter.