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Opening a Burmese Restaurant Was an Uphill Battle. Will America Remember Us When We Reopen?

The co-owner of hit D.C. spot Thamee wonders if the Southeast Asian kitchens that helped fuel the city’s restaurant boom will be able to reclaim their momentum

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“Na may gyi, htamin na,” was what my Sino-Anglo-Burmese mother said to me when the now-imploding Bon Appétit first profiled me in 2018. Translation: “You have a big name, but no rice in your bowl.” Or, in plain English, “It’s great press, daughter, but it would be better if you had some money to show for it.” Children of immigrants often have to go through three translations just to figure out what our parents are trying to say.

Thamee, the D.C. restaurant I co-own with my mother and our business partner, Eric Wang, is known for serving comfort and street foods from Burma, a Southeast Asian country (also known as Myanmar) that borders India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand. My mom’s birthplace is what the comedian Ali Wong would call a “Jungle Asian” country, meaning it is not as developed and far less known in the United States than neighboring superpowers like China, Japan, and Korea. Chefs like my mom, Jocelyn Law-Yone, have led a wave of cooks and storytellers who are using their restaurant kitchens to destigmatize similar cuisines. Thanks to those chefs’ creativity, Western cultures have developed new cravings for the “jungle” flavors that Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants often bring with them.

At last, shame and marginalization have given way to celebration. In 2019, Eater D.C. named Thamee its Restaurant of the Year, and Thrillist included us as one of the 12 best new restaurants on its national list. Even with our doors still currently closed to the public, Food & Wine just recently honored us as one of the 10 best new restaurants in America. But for the last four months, the novel coronavirus has shut down our business. The steep costs of reopening are adding up to eclipse the cost of opening our restaurant in the first place. So the number-one question on my mind is, will we ever be able to recapture the momentum we had before the COVID-19 pandemic drew us to a devastating halt?

From left, Thamee owners Simone Jacobson, Jocelyn Law-Yone, and Eric Wang.
From left, Thamee owners Simone Jacobson, Jocelyn Law-Yone, and Eric Wang.
Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

At Thamee, the vibrant flavors, the welcoming atmosphere, and the tabletops patterned after tribal textiles all speak to our Burmese heritage. When I first heard Wong joke about Jungle Asians and “fancy” Asians — to paraphrase, the latter boasts hosting Olympics while the former is often viewed as hosting diseases — I found a pitch-perfect cultural primer to help me laugh through the pain of never being “fancy Asian” enough to fully be accepted in Asian-American circles. Like Wong, whose identity has been shaped by being both Vietnamese and Chinese and born in the United States, my own Burmese-American heritage was never anything like the mainstream “model minority myth” I grew up rejecting as a monolithic, inaccurate notion of so-called Asian-American identity.

The term “Jungle Asian” isn’t meant to be dissected until it’s so politically correct and palatable that non-Southeast Asians feel comfortable using it to relate to us. It resonates for me precisely because my people are not “fancy.” Our food isn’t plated delicately, but abundantly, and is meant to be shared. We eat with our hands. We are loud anywhere we go. First-generation Jungle Asian Americans like me are used to our food being labeled weird, dirty, and cheap, because of our rich history rooted in ingredients like fish sauce and pickled tea leaves. Admittedly, the funky, fermented smells found in our ancestral culinary treasures have even embarrassed us at times.

“Jungle Asian” is an inside joke. It helps articulate a hyphenated Burmese-American heritage I’ve personally always had difficulty defining, not for white people to better understand us, but for our own liberated views of what makes Southeast Asian cultures and cuisines worth celebrating. I used to describe myself as “Hapa” — a Hawaiian word adopted by many multiracial folks with mixed Asian, Pacific Islander, or other roots — but stopped shortly after reading an NPR Code Switch article detailing how using it could be a form of appropriation. Self-identifying as “Hapa” used to feel like one less fight in my lifelong search for belonging. “What are you?” could be answered with “Hapa,” and then left hanging without expending more emotional labor to explain it.

Steamed whole fish with turmeric and citrus.
A steamed whole fish with turmeric and citrus from Thamee
Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

Faced with finding a word to justify my existence, I eventually gravitated toward “Jungle Asian.” Am I reclaiming a pejorative term that can be used to designate “refugee,” “immigrant,” or someone who doesn’t belong in the U.S.? Absolutely. My use of the term is both deeply personal and intentionally specific to my own experience.

With more than 30 Asian ethnicities and over 12 million people of diverse Asian origins in the United States, we have long needed a simple, humorous way to differentiate among Asian-American groups and to make ourselves visible to a larger audience. Immigrants and refugees from Burma, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and the Philippines represent a significant number of the Asian population in the U.S. From 2000 to 2015, Bhutanese-, Nepalese-, and Burmese-origin populations collectively increased more rapidly than any other newly arrived groups, according to a Pew Research Center report. Pew has projected Asian immigrants will surpass Latinx communities as the largest immigrant group in the U.S. by 2055.

Looking back at my family’s experience, I have to admit my mom was right to quell my excitement about that 2018 magazine feature. At that moment, I was on the verge of a total meltdown. I was having a pseudo quarter-life crisis two long years after leaving the best-paying job I ever had, as general manager for a big corporate restaurant, to launch my own food business, Toli Moli, with my mom and Eric, a Taiwanese-Japanese-American guy I met on OKCupid.

Toli Moli had an unconventional vision: to popularize and sell falooda, a layered dessert drink that’s popular all over the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Like the country of Burma, falooda remains unknown to many Americans. Our first 100-square-foot Toli Moli kiosk was, to my knowledge, the only “shop” in the United States wholly dedicated to falooda. But, no matter how many feature stories were written about us, we were still in the red financially, and things weren’t looking promising for the future. We were three unknowns punching above our weight, serving “the best dessert you’ve never had” (our original slogan) inside a Burmese bodega that sold condoms and hot sauce and barely broke even.

If not for Toli Moli, there would be no Thamee. It took four years to turn our tiny falooda stall into a full-service restaurant with national acclaim, and we still don’t have rice in our bowls.

Simone Jacobson and her partners started their food business with a shop that sold falooda, a layered dessert drink from the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.
Simone Jacobson and her partners started their food business with a shop that sold falooda, a layered dessert drink from the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.
Toli Moli [official]

Without a built-in audience for Burmese food, we’ve had to work hard to establish one. According to the Pew Research Center, there were only 168,000 Burmese people in the U.S. in 2015. Pew also reported in 2017 that, among eligible Asian-American voters, Burmese Americans had the lowest median household income ($69,000).

When my mom emigrated to the United States in the 1970s, her first restaurant manager job at Blackie’s House of Beef placed her firmly at the center of a steak-and-potatoes culinary landscape. Banking on Jungle Asian food to carry a restaurant back then would have been unfathomable to any immigrant entrepreneur, let alone potential investors. Today, D.C. is full of Southeast Asian success stories that have customers lining up and, in some cases, paying fine dining prices. Places like Pho Viet, Thip Khao, Bad Saint, Himitsu, Purple Patch, and Baan Thai (now Baan Siam) have helped lay the groundwork for Thamee.

Just a few months back, it was not uncommon for guests to admit, upon checking in for their reservations at Thamee, that they had to Google “Burma” on their car ride over to the restaurant. Before the pandemic, Thamee was the only full-service Burmese restaurant operating in Washington, D.C., but we remain deeply connected to the other Southeast Asian restaurants in the city making strides toward irrefutable success. It seemed we might all finally shed the oppressive “cheap” and “ethnic” food monikers that locked us into a lower class for as long as we have owned restaurants in this country. At last, we were getting the due respect and attention that has long been disproportionately given to our white peers.

In 2019, Washington Post writer Tim Carman dropped the “$20 Diner” name from his food column because he felt it did a disservice to the immigrants whose food he asserted should no longer be confined to a “cheap-eats rubric.” In the article in which he announced ending his shared role in perpetuating harmful media narratives around so-called ethnic restaurants, celebrity chef David Chang was quoted about feeling “stuck” due to “some type of ethnic price ceiling,” an unfortunate racial handicap I know all too well. Even Chang, who has broken into the mainstream with TV deals, his own podcast, and powerful investors, has sadly closed his D.C. restaurant because of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Not long ago, GQ tapped Hanumanh, the most recent addition to the mini-empire of Lao restaurants overseen by chef Seng Luangrath and her son, Boby Pradachith, for its 2020 “Best New Restaurants in America” list. Around this time last year, after being a finalist but not a winner for three years in a row, Bad Saint’s Tom Cunanan finally accepted his James Beard award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic at the most prestigious national celebration of our industry. In 2018, Himitsu’s Kevin Tien was named one of the 10 best new chefs by Food & Wine, and was also a finalist for a James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award. This year, my 67-year-old mother is up for a local RAMMY award for Rising Culinary Star. In a full-page spread in the 2020 (historically very white) Washington Life Young & the Guest List, I stood proudly next to Kevin — who incorporates his Vietnamese heritage into his own version of New American cooking. Together, we boldly took up space for all the unsung, overlooked Southeast Asian restaurateurs before us.

Hanumanh khao jee
Lao bar Hanumanh served an egg yolk and Maggi sauce dip when it opened last year.
Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

Thamee was open for just under a year when we closed indefinitely. We had barely begun enjoying the rewards of being one of 2020’s James Beard Award semifinalists for Best New Restaurant. It feels like a lifetime ago when we first noticed our sales rapidly climbing, and when guests were waiting up to two hours for one of our highly coveted 40 seats. It was surreal to see our business nearly double overnight. Then, on March 16, the novel coronavirus shut down almost every restaurant in America, including ours.

Restaurateurs are now expected to be savvy grant writers for funding that dries up due to “overwhelming response” on the same day it is announced. We must also become master “pivoters” who can magically reinvent business models overnight with drastically reduced seating capacities for yet-to-be-determined time periods. Thamee now has to reestablish the name we spent the last four years struggling to monetize.

Before “the Great Pause,” as I’m now referring to this moment in our collective history, we got pretty good at telling our story. Getting rice in our bowls proved a much more herculean task. Will we ever get the name and the rice? It’s been almost four months since we shut down, and I’m afraid we may never know if we’ll get a fair shot at both the recognition and the profitability.

Before the pandemic, Jungle Asian restaurants provided an edible soundtrack to our lives. I don’t want to imagine a D.C. without them.

That would mean I’d never again sit at the communal table at Pho Viet and laugh-cry into bowls of spicy lemongrass pho, sharing new strategies with my industry peers for how to combat racism while maintaining our composure during service. I wouldn’t be able to stand at Thip Khao’s resin-top bar again, scarfing down crispy pig ears and leathery Lao beef jerky with my exhausted team after a marathon festival service, shifting on our throbbing feet in smelly, sweat-soaked Toli Moli T-shirts, because there are no seats. I would never again enjoy a solo dinner at the one chair in front of Tom Cunanan’s kitchen counter at Bad Saint, unabashedly slurping the saucy insides out of prawn heads as Tom flashes me an enormous smile and shouts, “You’re the reason I cook!” while working the handle of a flaming hot wok with a few jerks of his wrist.

I would never again get to bite into Patrice Cleary’s inimitable lumpia at Purple Patch, or wash down a meal with her signature ube cupcake. I would never get to see Kevin Tien, most recently of Emilie’s, rush away from an event so he could personally thank us for visiting his restaurant. If I never again eat Kevin’s scallop crudo and crispy okra or the crab mustard beef tartare with deep-dish focaccia, the bread’s grill marks will linger on my tongue and in my memory forever.

Most of all, I cannot imagine our nation’s capital without a Burmese restaurant.

To allow Southeast Asian restaurants, which have collectively helped fuel D.C.’s restaurant boom, to fizzle would be devastating to both our tourism and hospitality sectors. Losing them would mark a regretful backward slide to the steak-and-potatoes town where my mom first arrived more than 40 years ago.

Southeast Asian restaurants bring the bold flavors of our cultures and our cuisines to the Western world. But right now, we don’t know if there will be rice in our bowls again anytime soon. We are being systematically overlooked for the limited funding opportunities and other critical resources that we desperately need to survive.

I’m banking on our guests now, just as Toli Moli did when we arrived on the D.C. dining scene with no name four years ago. By showing up to support us at our first falooda pop-up on January 30, 2016, and all the way up until the day we shut down indefinitely, our diners haven’t failed us yet. As cities across America prepare to reopen, we need to see our existence is still valued. Once again, we’ll be operating in a world where we are expected to start over at a disadvantage. We did it before, with little precedent and only fierce courage as our guide. What has changed, if only for a brief, hopeful moment, is that our names mean more now than they ever have before.

For Southeast Asian restaurants to stabilize, our governments, our lawmakers, our landlords, and, most importantly, our guests cannot forget us. We don’t know how long the Great Pause will keep customers from dining out as often or as gleefully as they did before, but we deserve to be uplifted once again when they do. We will need to be reminded that, for all the decades we were invisible to our fellow Americans, there are many days ahead when we can still reap the benefits of the progress we have made.

It took unimaginable grit, tenacity, and over a century of thankless labor to bring Jungle Asian food to the foreground of American culture. Let’s not lose our chance as a society of immigrants to ensure that it is more than just a footnote in our children’s favorite cookbooks many years from now.

Let’s get this rice.

In an effort to help “flatten the curve,” Thamee’s brick-and-mortar space has been temporarily closed since mid-March. Since then, Thamee has served over 3,000 meals to frontline healthcare workers at the D.C. Jail, won Guy’s Grocery Games, launched a BIPOC Beverage School, and was named one of the top 10 best new restaurants in America by Food & Wine magazine. On Saturday, June 20, Thamee joined bakers worldwide in collectively raising more than $1.6 million for anti-racist efforts under the Bakers Against Racism banner. Thamee’s bake sale raised $1,000 for Dreaming Out Loud, a D.C.-based, Black-led organization and nonprofit social enterprise that creates economic opportunities for D.C.’s marginalized communities by building a healthy, equitable food system. On Sunday, June 28, Thamee launches “Sunday Service” in collaboration with Tex-Mex startup La Tejana, serving breakfast tacos, coffee, and chai in the morning and Burmese Fried Chicken (BFC), cocktails, beer, and wine at night.


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