Pad Kee Mao wrapped in egg at Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
A preserved egg from Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
Thai Chow Mein at Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
Pad Kapow at Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
Pickled Tea Leave salad at Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
Mushroom Laarb at Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
Seaweed Shrimp from Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
Samosas from Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
Crab rangoon from Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
The inside of a samosa at Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
Nirvana Taste restaurant attached to the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
Preserved Egg with Chicken at Nirvana Taste restaurant in the Mon Asian Grocery on South Calhoun Street.
Sunday, March 18, 2018 1:00 am
Find enlightenment at Burmese restaurant
RYAN DUVALL | The Journal Gazette
Out of a possible five
It's a story I have heard many times.
The owners of the restaurant were born in Myanmar and lived in Thailand before coming to the U.S.
But what wasn't typical was the mix of exotic and intricately flavored Burmese and Thai fare that the owners of Nirvana Taste Restaurant – and the Mon Asian Grocery next door – were churning out.
Given it is part of the grocery, there was no shortage of fresh ingredients and all of the dishes were made to order. The result was wonderful.
But there was one caveat. The waits for my food at Nirvana were some of the longest I have ever experienced. During lunch, the folks stocking shelves in the grocery took a break with one heading to the kitchen to cook and the other doing her best to handle customers in the restaurant and store.
During my evening visit, when the owners' daughter, a student at South Side High School, was working, things went smoother, but the wait for food was still excruciating. The daughter, who spoke perfect English, had no trouble explaining the menu and taking orders. At lunch, the language barrier made it difficult.
So was the food worth the wait and struggle? Absolutely.
There were two dishes I was most eager to try, one that I saw on the restaurant's Facebook page and another that caught my eye when I saw the menu for the first time.
The latter featured an ominous ingredient I had seen only on food travel TV shows – preserved eggs.
The Preserved Duck Egg with Chicken consisted of the boiled, eerie-black name ingredient cut into quarters and mixed with chicken, peppers, garlic and basil.
Though the eggs looked imposing, they were much milder than I expected – just more sour than a regular boiled egg. The rest of the dish was spot on, and I was actually kind of disappointed the eggs weren't funkier given their appearance and reputation. There were a lot of eggs, too, so I would pass next time because I don't want that much of any boiled egg in my stir-fry.
The one dish on Facebook looked too good not to be good. It was a noodle dish wrapped in a thin omelet. The photo was of a spicy ramen special one weekend, but the folks at Nirvana Taste said they could make it with the Pad Kee Mao drunken noodles and gladly did.
It looked like a giant four-egg omelet from a breakfast place, but instead of ham and cheese inside, it had a perfect mix of tender flat rice noodles, broccoli, garlic, sweet peppers, galangal leaves and meat.
The egg was not just there for show, either. It added heft to the dish and the fluffy omelet was fantastic when mixed in with the sticky, mild, slightly sweet sauce that gave the dish its signature drunken flavor.
Another dish that a Nirvana regular told me she was talked out of by the staff because it was “too Burmese,” may have been the most delicious thing I was served. The Pickled Tea Leave Salad was an adventure in flavor and texture.
The dish's base was the slightly bitter leaves dressed in a traditional salty, fish-sauce vinaigrette with diced tomatoes, cabbage, sprouts and roasted nuts. It was garnished with Thai chiles and raw garlic, both of which gave it a wonderful kick.
The nuts were the best part as they appeared to be fried, were sort of puffy and super crunchy almost like bits of tempura. It was a marvelous dish I would not try to talk anyone out of trying.
Another salad that was new to me was the Mushroom Laarb. This vegetarian alternative to the traditional Thai dish had a variety of mushrooms with the long-stemmed, white Asian variety being the most dominant. It also had Thai mint, tomatoes and red onion, and it packed a wallop when I asked to have it “Thai hot,” so be wary of how spicy things may be if you ask.
It also had a few cashews mixed in, but I added more crushed nuts from a container on the table. It did not really remind me of traditional laarb, but it was a great mushroom salad nonetheless.
Aside from exotic dishes, Nirvana Taste did the standbys well, also.
The samosas were phenomenal. The fried triangles were stuffed with diced potatoes that were still a little firm and they had the signature yellow hue from turmeric. The cabbage inside was crunchy, and these purses were so tasty I didn't even use the chili sauce.
The crab rangoon was serviceable and the seaweed-wrapped shrimp was also a fine appetizer. The seaweed was like wilted spinach after frying and added an extra layer of flavor to the crispy shrimp on a stick.
The entrée I would suggest for those intimidated by the exotic fare is the Thai Chow Mein, which the daughter highly recommended.
It was a big plate of thick, stir-fried noodles with choice of meat, cabbage, onions, long beans, carrots, cilantro and a fried egg. It had a hearty, wok-roasted flavor, the cabbage and beans gave it some crunch and the chicken I chose was tender and delicious.
Another somewhat standard option that lived up to its name when it came to spice was the Pad Kapow. I had mine with beef and asked for it hot. It was a basic stir-fry with a spicy basil sauce that had pretty much only meat, onions and red and yellow peppers. Rice came on the side along with a fried egg. I loved the interplay between the tender beef and peppers and would have it again, but with a little less heat.
The space next to Mon is surprisingly pleasant with a pale green paint scheme accented by light wood. It is lit by modern drop lights and there are a few framed menus with brightly colored photos and a gorgeous oversized Asian fan with a village along the water painted on it.
I would definitely return but might call in my order ahead of time to avoid that wait. Apparently many other lovers of Nirvana Taste's eclectic food are doing that, too, because there were many carry-out orders leaving the little restaurant during each of my visits.
Restaurant: Nirvana Taste
Address: 3032 S. Calhoun St.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Kid-friendly: Yes, but no menu
Menu: Samosas ($5.99), seaweed shrimp ($1), crab rangoon ($5.99), tea leave salad ($5.99), mushroom laarb ($9.99), preserved egg and chicken ($8.99), Pad Kee Mao ($8.99), pad kapow ($8.99), Thai chow mein ($7.99)
Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 0 (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.