You could conceivably pass Yun Cafe on the lower level of the Jackson Heights Roosevelt Avenue subway station and assume it’s just somewhere to grab a ginger ale and an egg and cheese on your way to work. While it is a place for quick NYC bodega delights, this all-day deli also serves incredible Burmese cold salads, noodle dishes, and soups worth a detour in your typical subway commute.
Yun Cafe represents one of only two self-identified Burmese restaurants in New York City (the other being Rangoon in Crown Heights). Much of the halal-friendly menu includes elements like fermented tea leaves, shredded papaya, green chiles, and crispy fried beans with sourness, bitterness, umami funk, and sweetness seamlessly balanced in every bite. You’ll notice this harmony especially in dishes like the laphet thoke, a cold salad with fermented tea leaves mixed together in a citrusy fish sauce with thin strands of cabbage and refreshing hunks of red and green tomatoes. The laphet thoke is then topped with a blanket of puffed soy nuts, crunchy peanuts, and sesame seeds. For about $10, you’ll get an invitation to witness every texture coexist in this singular tea leaf salad, like it’s some kind of reunion concert for vegetal goods.
The takeout dishes become even more impressive when you consider the small, subterranean prep area they’re produced in. One person whizzes around behind the counter, heating up soup in the microwave, grabbing fresh vegetables out of a glass refrigerator case, and topping each dish with dried shrimp, lime juice, crunchy soy nuts, peanuts, and sesame seeds. Just a single door and a few shelves with assorted fried beans, fish paste, and pineapple jam biscuits separate this space from headphoned-subway riders. Even still, Yun Cafe somehow feels like it exists in its own universe, far away from MTA conductors reminding you to stand clear of the closing doors, please.
While there are a couple of folding chairs inside Yun Cafe’s stall (and in the subway station hallway), we’d recommend ordering your food to go and heading upstairs to the pedestrian plaza on 74th Street where you’ll find some bright blue seats and tables out in the open.
After you eat the crispy chicken curry noodle or funky fermented tea leaf salad, you’ll probably find yourself hoping that every subway had a connected space as wonderful as Yun Cafe. When the disappointment becomes too much to bear, you know where to go.
A Note About Spice Levels
You can choose your spice level for each dish, and we’d encourage you to try at least medium. Along with umami and sourness, spice is another essential flavor in Yun Cafe’s food. Even with the heat from added green chiles, the dishes feel light, citric-leaning, and refreshing.
Kaut Swe Thoke
This excellent cold salad comes with thick boiled noodles in a yellow curry sauce with chicken, shredded cabbage, and hardboiled eggs. The dish is topped with red onions, cucumbers, and a bean tempura brittle that adds crackle to the soft chewy noodles. We’d recommend adding on potatoes and/or tofu for no extra charge to add even more texture contrast and starch.
Dark green tea leaves with a deep fermented flavor are lightened by crunchy cabbage and juicy raw green and red tomatoes. This is refreshing to eat, even in 28-degree weather outside on a pedestrian plaza. We love all of the subtly distinct crunches from sesame seeds, and puffed-up soy nuts and peanuts.
The national dish of Myanmar - a fiery-orange, fish-based soup with thin rice noodles. Yun Cafe’s version comes with stewed banana stems, which taste crispy and fibrous like a celery relative. Between that, a generous amount of chile powder, herbaceous cilantro, crispy bean tempura (also seen in the kaut swe thoke), and the acidic punch of lime and lemongrass, you could easily order nothing but this soup and be satisfied.