Is it Thai or is it Burmese?
Mahnin Asian Restaurant at Pontiac and Calhoun streets had two of my co-workers, who were already regulars at the relatively new restaurant, debating.
In the end, both were right. This tiny eatery, in what was originally an auto service station and which was also home to a couple of Mexican restaurants in recent years, is mainly Thai, but it has strong Burmese influences. The owners and staff are a mix of both, and the two best foods I ate there came from both places.
The triangular samusa fried dumplings were the perfect appetizer. These super-crisp and flaky rice paper-wrapped beauties were filled with diced potatoes, chicken meat and a little cabbage and onion. The filling was seasoned with cumin and/or coriander seeds, and those spices married well with the zesty red pepper, garlic and cilantro dipping sauce. After taking my first crunchy bite, the aroma of the filling that wafted out was simply wonderful and kept me going back for more.
An adventuresome entrée, the chicken pad Thai, was especially good when considering its ultra-cheap price of $4.99. The heaping plate of rice noodles with egg, green onion, sprouts and tofu was tossed in a slightly sweet Thai dressing and topped with chopped peanuts. The egg enveloped much of the noodles, the sprouts and peanuts added crunch, and it was an excellent version of America’s favorite Thai dish. It will easily work its way into my regular rotation.
Variations of the two top dishes also proved worthy of trying. When Mahnin was out of samusa one evening – my server said only 100 are made each day, so when they are gone, they are gone – the shrimp rolls proved to be just as flaky and crisp, but they held cellophane noodles and sweet Thai basil along with the signature ingredient.
One big difference was the dipping sauce. The red sauce looked similar to the samusa’s, but it was a bit thicker – kind of like ketchup – and was flaming hot. The same sauce caught me off guard when it was used to dress slaw during another visit.
The pad siew was made from rice noodles and egg like the pad Thai, but these noodles were much wider. I chose it with squid, which could be found throughout the dish, to go with the broccoli and sweet Thai brown sauce. Instead of peanuts, this dish was topped with fried garlic, which added a whole new flavor component. The thin slices of broccoli stem were wonderful, and the chunks of squid and scattered tentacles were tender and tasty. The flavor was great, but the noodles were a bit overcooked and, when combined with the egg, made the dish seem mushy.
The spicy green curry made my eyes water but was worth the pain. The sauce that coated the chicken, sweet red peppers, green bell peppers, soybean kernel and basil was creamy, which kind of fooled me into thinking it wouldn’t be so hot. But the heat didn’t stop me from soaking up every drop with my perfectly prepared sticky rice.
The Burmese noodles – which were suggested by my server who said they were available at all times, though they were not on the menu – were the opposite. Not really knowing what to expect from this simply named dish, it was, in fact, simple with egg noodles fried with a little cabbage, carrot, broccoli and choice of meat. The beef in mine was tender and flavorful, and whatever sauce it was cooked in was not at all exotic. It had a straightforward stir-fry flavor much like Chinese lo mein.
The exotic flavor of the yum won sinn salad was not to my liking. Shrimp, mussels, crab and fish balls were combined with clear noodles, onion and green peppers and tossed in lime juice. There also must have been some fish sauce in there because the entire dish had a strong, salty, fermented seafood flavor of which I could only handle a few bites before souring on it.
The sukiyaki had the same seafood ingredients in a clear, slightly sweet broth that also contained celery, cabbage, carrots, mushrooms and baby corn, but it didn’t have the same off-putting flavor. It was rather bland. A small ramekin of some mystery brown, chunky sauce accompanied it, but I didn’t dare use it after getting one whiff and taste. I would like to say it smelled like my dad’s old work boots, but that would be an insult to my dad. And the taste matched the smell.
The papaya salad offering was, fortunately, much better. Two skewered grilled chicken wings sat atop this mix of papaya slivers, lettuce, green onion, cucumber, carrot, red peppers, cabbage and tofu. The wings were nice and crispy, and the vegetables were nicely tossed in a Thai peanut dressing. The peppers could light you up a bit, but they were tempered nicely by the sweet papaya and the crunchy cabbage. Pieces of chopped minicrab with shell were also scattered throughout the dish. They were not really meant for eating and were there mainly to add flavor.
Overall, flavor was not at all a problem at Mahnin. There really isn’t any atmosphere to speak of, and the service was friendly and appreciative, but inconsistent. I had trouble getting drinks refilled, which was an issue when it came to some of the spicy dishes, and there seemed to be no semblance of order about when the food arrived.
Restaurant: Mahnin Asian Restaurant
Address: 2701 S. Calhoun St.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day; closed Tuesdays
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol served: None
Credit cards accepted: Yes
Kid-friendly: No menu, but children welcomed
Menu: Samusa ($3), shrimp rolls ($3), pad siew ($4.99, plus $1 for seafood), yum won sinn ($4.99), papaya ($5.99), spicy green curry ($4.99), Burmese noodles ($4.99), sukiyaki ($4.99, plus $1 for seafood)
Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).