William Lee always knew he would leave Mandalay for America; his mother started the visa process for her family before her children were even born. What he did not foresee, however, was that the flavors of his hometown would follow him across the world to please palates across California’s Bay Area.
Before he set up Wanna-E – a food truck that serves ‘authentic Mandalay food’ to the suit-clad bustle of downtown San Francisco – Lee’s family moved along a trajectory that is well-known in the Sino-Burmese community. At the end of the Chinese Civil War, Lee’s grandparents on both sides were among the thousands of Chinese people who fled to Burma to escape the communist takeover.
“My grandparents were in the [Kuomintang] army. When they crossed down south to Yunnan, they said Burma was a very good country. So with all the wars going on, they immigrated to Burma,” Lee said.
The family first settled in Mogaung, Kachin State, and later moved to Mandalay, where Lee’s parents were born. His father opened a lumber business, and his mother ran a small supermarket. As they adapted to life in Mandalay, the family learned to recreate the city’s diversity in their cooking. The city’s Bama, Shan, Chinese and Indian tinges all came together in the family’s diet.
But by the 1980s, the country that had been a safe haven for one generation had less to offer to their children.
“The education system in Burma was not well-established, so for our sake, [my parents] abandoned their businesses and moved [to the US] with us,” Lee said.
His mother began the process of immigrating to the US in 1984, but only in 2004, when William was 16 years old, did the family finally make the move to California.
But 11 years later, after studying biochemistry and business at UC Davis and an unfulfilling stint as a banker, the American dream remained elusive to Lee.
For the next year, he searched for purpose in the streets of San Francisco as an Uber driver. While shuttling people around the city, he noticed a pattern. Every Friday, he would receive several requests for rides to the Fort Mason Center, located at the northern tip San Francisco. Intrigued by what he was clearly missing out on, William eventually decided to check out the scene.
What he discovered was a food truck bacchanalia hosted by a local event company called Off The Grid, where families and friends come together for live music, outdoor activities and flavors from around the world supplied by a rotating roster of over 200 food trucks.
“This is what originally gave me the food truck idea. And then, I checked around if there was any competition for a Burmese truck. I didn’t see any,” William said.
Around the same time, William’s sister graduated from a course on culinary arts.
“My mom and my sister do great Burmese cooking. So I saw a great opportunity to dive in,” he said. Now all three of them run the food truck together.
The business took nine months to set up, and Wanna-E finally opened in March 2015.
“Wanna-E is just slang for ‘wanna eat’,” he explained. “When we were trying to find a name, we looked at the other Burmese restaurants in San Francisco and around the Bay Area. Most of them are Burma-themed, like Little Yangon or Burma Superstar,” William said, referencing just two of the many mega-popular Burmese restaurants in the area.
In addition to choosing a distinctive name for his truck and his business, William and his family also sought a flavor that would stand out among the many Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area.
“We don’t say we serve Burmese food—we say it’s Mandalay gourmet. Mandalay is very diverse. There are Bamar, Shan, Chinese, and Indian people there, and that comes out in our food.”
Wanna-E serves the kind of food you would find in Mandalay itself. The tea leaf salad is a coveted dish among San Franciscans and a favorite among Wanna-E customers. Other appetizers include ginger salad, pinto fritters, and golden tofu fries – all inspired by the streets of Lee’s hometown.
Another favorite is called ‘Not So Stinky Garlic Noodle’ – a take on sichet khao swe topped with braised pork and scallions and dressed in soy sauce and garlic oil. The shiitake noodle soup is a Yunnanese version of Shan noodles, often found in Mandalay.
Lee says the people of San Francisco have embraced Mandalay cuisine, even when it comes with such unfamiliar ingredients as dry shrimp powder. He says many customers recognize Myanmar from the news, and some even tell him about the time they visited Bagan. But most of his customer don’t know what Mandalay is. In these situations, he and his family are happy to tell their story.
So if you even find yourself on 2nd and Harrison in downtown San Francisco, make sure to grab a meal with the Lee family.