There’s nothing quite as disconcerting as the sound of a microwave pinging in the middle of a quiet restaurant. On a polar December night on Devon Avenue, that very sound gave me concern for the condition of my mohinga, a hot, fish-based noodle soup from Burma, or Myanmar, as its military dictatorship renamed it in 1989.
That notoriously cruel government is largely the reason there’s a sizable Burmese population that’s resettled in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and why that midsize city has a small but rich collection of Burmese restaurants and groceries. Brutal government oppression is also the reason that Chicago in recent years has welcomed a growing number of Rohingya refugees originally from Burma’s western Rakhine state and now, to our great fortune, Chicago’s only Burmese restaurant, the Family House.
Mohinga is a dish very often eaten for breakfast, so it might just have served me right to get rewarmed soup in the evening. But on the night in question I was very much looking forward to that mohinga, something I hadn’t eaten since my last visit to Fort Wayne nearly five years ago. I desperately wanted it to be good.
And it was—a piping-hot briny brew full of tilapia bits and banana stems, with a small island of deep-fried soybeans that contributed a crunchy textural enhancement to the long, slippery rice vermicelli.
If you, as a Chicagoan, have pined for Burmese food as I have, there are other dishes on the menu at the Family House that will immediately grab your attention. Of course there’s laphet thoke, or Burma’s famous tea leaf salad—sour, deeply funky fermented green leaves tossed with shredded cabbage, roasted peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, and fried split soybeans that together perform a veritable symphony of crunchiness. There’s also ohn no khao swe (there are multiple anglicized spellings), a richly creamy curried noodle soup served with roughly hacked and wickedly moist slices of chicken breast. It’s a relative of the coconut-based type of northern Thai khao soi most commonly found in Chiang Mai and at Thai restaurants across U.S.
The Family House is in fact owned and operated by a family, according to co-owner Mohammad Alif, who was born in Malaysia, where his parents fled from Burma in the late 70s along with his uncle Ismail Kalamiah. The family resettled here in stages three to four years ago. Everybody’s gotten in the act. Kalamiah as well as Alif’s mother and aunt cook in the kitchen, while four other relatives work the front of the house, a small, sparsely decorated storefront whose windows frosted over during the last cold snap.
It was the perfect place to warm your suffering soul and bones with one of those soups, or snap out of your seasonal stupor with one of the bracing salads—green mango, pickled ginger, or papaya, each sharp with chile and lime and deeply umamic with fish sauce.
And that, sadly, is where the choices stop. Alif tells me that they had to scale back ambitions for a more rounded Burmese menu due to the difficulty of sourcing key ingredients. Luckily, the Family House is also serving Malaysian and Indonesian dishes every bit as good as the Burmese stuff.
There’s a fat tangle of sweet-and-spicy mee goreng, stir-fried wheat noodles mined with snappy shrimp and crispy fried garlic. There’s a handful of fried rice variants including nasi goreng pattaya, rice enveloped in a thin omelet drizzled with sweet chile sauce, or nasi goreng kampung, “village style fry rice,” studded with tiny anchovies. Other rice dishes include the iconic nasi lemak: rice cooked in coconut milk and fragrant pandan leaf, surrounded by pieces of chicken, fried anchovies, roasted peanuts, sliced cucumbers, and the chile paste sambal, all meant to be combined in customized bites. A bracing, clear oxtail soup, sup ekor, recalls the hot-and-sour profile of Thai tom yam.
I’ve been told that the best time to eat at the Family House is during the day, when the most skilled chefs in the family are on duty, though I’ve had great homey food in the evenings too. The restaurant opened in early November, and due to supply and occasional service snafus, it’s still very much a work in progress, so much so that I almost hesitated to write about it now. But Alif promises that more Burmese food will gradually be added to the menu, and because the Family House has been championed by the travelers at LTHForum—who put it on the food-writer radar—it’s picking up momentum. Let’s hope it thrives. v