‘A Whole New World’
Kai Burmese Cuisine brings a taste of Myanmar to Tulsa
Chicken and rice from Kai Burmese
A new cuisine was quietly introduced to Tulsa last year. Kai Burmese Cuisine opened in January 2017, mostly to serve the large population of Zomi refugees from Myanmar who have been emigrating to Tulsa over the past decades.
The Zomi people hail mostly from the Chin State in northwestern Myanmar. The mostly-Buddhist country has made headlines in recent years for its violent mistreatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority and has exerted the same atrocities upon the Zomi, a Christian ethnic minority.
When the Zomi people began coming to the U.S., as early as the 1970s, some began to settle in Tulsa to attend Oral Roberts University. In the last 15 to 20 years, the population has grown, earning our city the moniker “Zomi, USA.” It is now estimated that upwards of 7,000 Zomi refugees reside in Tulsa, mostly in the southwest part of the city and Jenks. The area near 71st Street and Lewis Avenue, where Kai Burmese Cuisine sits tucked in the corner of a nondescript strip mall, is where many Zomi businesses have begun to crop up.
Kai’s owners, husband-and-wife team Nang Khai and Vung Cing—a welder and Bama Pie worker, respectively, before opening Kai—have been in Tulsa about 10 years. The couple noticed the Burmese community growing and thought they needed a restaurant that would offer familiar flavors from back home. And to the city’s non-Burmese population, it’s an introduction to a cuisine Tulsa has never tasted before.
The food borrows flavors from Myanmar’s neighboring countries—like India, Thailand, China, and Vietnam—and blends them together to create something truly unique. I dined at Kai twice recently, once for dinner and once for lunch, leaving each time satisfied and eager to return to try something else.
On my first visit, I chose La Phe Tot for my appetizer, a slaw-like salad of “seasonal tea leaves,” cabbage, tomatoes, garlic, sesame seeds, peanuts, and fried broad beans. The cabbage was crisp, and the peanuts and broad beans added extra crunch. The dish tasted strongly of basil and garlic, but those flavors didn’t overwhelm the nuance of its other ingredients. It was very tasty, and the generous portion could easily suffice as a full meal.
I went with Kyi Oo for my entrée, since it’s one of two dishes “recommended” on the menu. It’s a soup featuring a generous helping of pork meatballs, sliced pork, fish, quail eggs, mustard greens, green onions, and thin rice noodles. The mild-but-flavorful broth is given a deeper, spicier taste when you pour in the accompanying sauce made of soy, garlic, and red chili peppers. Vietnamese pho might be the closest comparison, but the combination of ingredients and flavors make it something all its own.
For lunch the next day, I chose milk tea—a warm green tea with sweet milk—and the A Kyaw Sone appetizer: tempura fried tofu, rice cake with black beans, and rice cake with sweet peas. Khai and Cing make their tofu fresh in-house, and it has a firm, yet silky texture. The rice cakes seem to consist of mashed rice worked into patties and fried. The black beans and green peas add earthy and bright flavors, respectively. The sauce accompanying the dish—a mixture of soy, vinegar, cilantro, mint, and chilies—is tasty enough to drink.
For lunch, Cing recommended the Chicken Rice, a special that’s only available on Tuesdays. It consists of thigh meat that has been lightly breaded and fried, served with aromatic basmati rice and a peppery homemade chicken broth. The surprising star of the dish was the rice; seasoned with cardamom, it reminded me of some of my favorite Indian dishes.
The menu at Kai is varied and extensive, including several daily and weekend specials as well as a couple of breakfast options. Cing said most of the dishes are similar to what one might find in a restaurant in Myanmar, although a couple—like the Pork, Beef, and Chicken Curry (three separate options)—are similar to what she and her husband cook at home. The prices range from $1.99 for breakfast dishes to $5.99 for appetizers and $7.29 for most entrees. The most expensive item on the menu is $8.50.
Both times I dined, Cing was working the front of house, with her husband and other family members in the kitchen cooking. Children, including Khai and Cing’s three-year-old son Joseph Kai, the restaurant’s namesake, toddled around the dining room and kitchen. I only saw two non-Zomi diners while I was there; everyone else seemed to know Cing, and each other, very well.
Cing says more non-Zomi Tulsans are learning about her restaurant, but she still primarily caters to people from her home country. She also offers discounts to area ministers.
Cing says she’s “blessed” to be in Tulsa, but she still worries about friends and family back in Myanmar. The violence being committed against the Zomi there continues, and there are many people who would like to come—who need to come—to the U.S.
“We’re praying,” she said. “We are so glad to be here. We have a better life. We feel safe here.”
Kai Burmese Cuisine
6912 S. Lewis Ave. | 918-559-7899 | facebook.com/kaiburmese
Hours: Mon.-Tues. & Thurs.-Sat. 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun. 12-6 p.m.