The Spice of Life

Dagon stew Burma Hawaii

Ever since we tried the tea leaf salad at Dagon Restaurant, a little hole in the wall on Honolulu’s King Street, we couldn’t stay away. This is the story behind the restaurant, and a sampling of its delicious fare.

Text by Kelli Gratz | Images by Tommy Shih

Ten seconds after entering Dagon restaurant on King Street, I’m feeling less like I’m standing at the edge of Honolulu and more like I happened across a local eatery in Burma’s capital, Yangon. Paintings on the walls depicting fishermen setting traps on the Irrawaddy River and ornate wooden carvings of Hindu gods add to this feeling of authenticity.

The food itself easily transports you to a mythical place somewhere back East. Burmese cuisine is a bit hard to pinpoint, but generally speaking, it’s a mix of Indian, Thai, Laotian, and Chinese food. In other words, dishes are full of strong spices that invigorate the senses. My family and I are being led to a table when I catch glimpses of bright reds, greens, and yellows like tiny gemstones on top of fantastically textured salads and rice dishes. Khun Sai, the owner and chef, comes out to greet us as my brother sets down a bottle of 7-Eleven’s finest wine. “I’m glad you know it’s BYOB,” Sai says with a laugh, putting his English language classes to use. “This food goes really well with red wine!”

Sai, a thin, young Burmese native, wears a grin across his face the whole time he tells us about his creations that have delighted many since opening Dagon in November 2013. He notes the tea leaf salad made with laphet, or pickled tea leaves, which he ferments himself. “It’s the most popular item on the menu,” he says. “When I was back in Burma, my mom used to make every day. It’s the only thing I can eat every day, and you cannot find anywhere else! It’s really fresh and so good.”

Dagon Burma Honolulu Hawaii tea-leaf-salad Dagon Honolulu

When Sai left his home in the East more than a decade ago, he decided he would start in one of the foodie capitals of the West: San Francisco. As the oldest son in his family, he always helped his mother cook, and learned a lot in the process. He dreamed of owning his own restaurant one day, and before coming to Hawai‘i, he was part-owner of two. “The problem I had in San Francisco was that there were many Asian people and Asian restaurants—and Asians, they know how to cook!” says Sai, who moved to Hawai‘i because of family living here at the time. “I was used to cooking for Asians, but I realized I needed to tone down some of the dishes to make it accessible for everyone to try.”

I dig into a warm and crunchy samusa, a fried flour sack filled with potatoes, onions, and spices, and then that wondrous tea leaf salad, with its raw lettuce, tomatoes, peanuts, sesame seeds, dal, and laphet. Next, a delicious wave of garlic noodles, basil beef, and chicken curry hits the table, followed by the best dish of the day, the spicy beef. “It’s not that spi—” my brother gets out before coughing on a chili pepper and downing his glass of wine. Sure, it’s a swift kick to your palate and may cause gastric fireworks, but the flavors are so bold and tasty that it simply cannot be refused. Luckily, the beef is tempered by the Burmese-Indian rice and Sai’s favorite dish, the traditional Burmese beef curry with potatoes, which he explains this way: “There’s nothing better than to slow-cook your curry while you drink beer.” It’s always the simple things in life that make us happy.

Dagon is located at 2671 S. King St. For more information, call 808-947-0088.