Hornbill Restaurant: Burmese Cuisine Comes to West County!

Sesame Chicken and Garlic String Beans

by Vickie Lewis

When the “Coming Soon” signs went up for the Hornbill Burmese Cuisine restaurant, I remember wondering what kind of food this would be. Of course, I’d heard of Burma, but had never had eaten Burmese food. In anticipation of my visit to Hornbill, I did a bit of research about Burma, and learned that it is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand. Burma is officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, and it is divided into seven states and seven regions. Considering the geography of Burma, it is not surprising that traditional Burmese food has been influenced by the cuisine from some of its neighboring countries, particularly India and Thailand.

Hornbill owner, Ngun Hlawn, purchased the business formerly known as Champa Restaurant, located in Sobrante Plaza on San Pablo Dam Road in El Sobrante. Ngun has always been a business woman, and currently owns and manages a Sushi business at the Safeway store in El Cerrito.  Although she’d never previously owned or operated a restaurant, she recognized that Burmese restaurants are highly popular in the Bay Area; however, the closest venues are in Alameda and San Francisco counties. Hornbill was opened as a result of Ngun’s desire to introduce Burmese cuisine to the local Contra Costa community.   

Hornbill Burmese Cuisine opened in early July with assistance mostly from Ngun’s family members who currently make up the majority of the staff. I had the pleasure of meeting with and interviewing Ngun’s niece, Far Sung, and her husband, Tha Bawi, to learn more about the business and Burmese cuisine.  Far explained that the family is from the Chin State in Burma, which is geographically close to the Indian border. The Great Hornbill is the state bird of the Chin State—hence, the restaurant’s name. The restaurant reflects the décor of Burma, including lovely tapestries on one wall, the Chin State Flag which features two Great Hornbills, and woven table runners representative of the Chin State. The interior of the restaurant is open and spacious, with capacity for 200 guests. There are two sides to the restaurant, with one side being ideal for large parties and private banquets. The restaurant side boasts several lovely chandeliers for lighting it boasts several lovely chandeliers for lighting, and the “banquet” side features ceiling fans and a very long drink bar. Green plants adorn the dining area, many of which were sent to wish the new owners success on their business endeavor.

Hornbill has an extensive menu with selections sure to please every taste.  They offer an array of appetizers, salads, and soups, in addition to entrees made with seafood, chicken, pork, beef, and lamb. There are also vegetarian entrees, noodle dishes, and desserts. Four types of rice are available to complement the entrees—Jasmine, Brown, Coconut, and Burmese Indian rice.  Also available is Burmese Fried Rice, which can be made with either Jasmine or Brown rice, and is mixed with whole beans and egg, and topped with fried onions. A special lunch menu pairs any of the entrées with Jasmine rice and a special salad of the day for $10 – $11.  Main menu prices range from $9 – $14, with entrée prices averaging $10 – $12. Prices for appetizers and desserts start at $5. Drink selections include sodas and water, as well as Myanmar Hot and Iced Tea and Coconut Juice.  At the time of this review, Hornbill was awaiting its liquor license; once obtained, the restaurant will offer an assortment of domestic wines and international beers, including those made in Burma, Thailand, and Singapore.

When my guest and I began to review the menu, Far told us about some of the most popular and traditional items offered.  The first item described was Mohinga, a traditional catfish chowder which is traditionally consumed in Burma for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is made with rice noodles, ground catfish, onions, and cilantro and is topped with chili. Far’s husband further explained that the soup doesn’t contain pieces of catfish, but rather the broth just has the fish flavor.  Another traditional menu item is the Tea Leaf Salad. This may be prepared with dried shrimp or as a vegetarian dish, and includes Burmese tea leaves, fried garlic, beans, sesame seed, lettuce, and tomato.  We were told that in Burma, Tea Leaf salad is traditionally served as a special treat to honor guests in one’s home.   Far explained that the Tea Leaf salad is also extremely popular with Hornbill’s customers.

We opted to start with an appetizer sampler which included eggrolls, Burmese Samosas, and Shan Yellow Tofu, and ordered Mayanmar Iced Tea to drink.  The tea is similar to Thai Iced tea, but has a stronger tea flavor, and is not as sweet as Thai tea.  We both enjoyed the flavor and found it to be a refreshing beverage. The eggrolls were fried crisp, with a moist, fresh center made with mushrooms, carrots, and shredded cabbage.  The Burmese Samosas were also crisply fried and were filled with a smooth blend of potato, lentils, onions, peas and mincemeat, which combined for a great, savory flavor.  Surprisingly, my favorite of the three appetizers was the Shan Yellow Tofu, made from chickpeas and deep-fried, served with a drizzle of chili sauce. The excellent flavor of this appetizer was totally unexpected! I don’t generally opt for tofu, but this was very appealing, and the small bit of chili sauce perfectly enhanced the flavor of the tofu square.  The Samosas and the Shan Tofu are both hand-made in-house at Hornbill. There are several other appetizers that we didn’t have an opportunity to try, but I highly recommend those described herein.

For our main meal, my guest and I each ordered an entrée and shared a bowl of coconut rice. I opted to order the Pumpkin Pork Stew, slowly cooked pork over organic pumpkin, with fresh onions, garlic, ginger, and other spices.  As an extra “treat”, I also ordered Stir-Fried Green Beans in garlic and chili sauce.  My guest ordered Sesame Chicken, which consists of slices of chicken strips lightly fried in sweet and tangy sauces, topped with sesame seeds.   

A generous portion of hot coconut rice was served at the same time as our two entrees arrived. I honestly couldn’t wait to try the rice, and it was excellent as I’d hoped it would be!  I enjoy all things coconut, so I savored this tender rice that had an excellent coconut taste, and was somewhat sweet.  Tha later told me that in Burma, coconut rice is generally served only for special occasions, but I think I’d like to eat it daily! My guest and I served ourselves some of each of the entrees and prepared to eat our first ever Burmese meal.  The green beans were definitely a favorite, lightly sautéed so that they were still a bit crunchy, and were mildly spicy.  They tasted very similar to sautéed green beans that I’ve had at Asian restaurants, so this was a familiar dish.  The pork pumpkin stew consisted of chunks of tender pork and pumpkin in a light sauce, which complemented the coconut rice. The pork was seasoned well and was very flavorful; however, the dish seemed to include more pumpkin chunks than pork. When eaten alone, the pumpkin tasted a bit bland, so to enhance the taste, we ate it mixed with rice and sauce from the entree. The presentation of the sesame chicken was beautiful, and the ample portion consisted of a mound of crisply fried chicken cooked in a “sweet and sour” type of sauce, sprinkled with sesame seeds.  We both enjoyed the crispness and sweet, yet tangy flavor of the chicken, and agreed this would be a dish we would definitely order again. Worth noting is that diners can choose varying levels of spice when ordering food at Hornbill, from mildly spicy to very hot.

No meal is complete without dessert, and Hornbill offers six different interesting choices. I selected the coconut pudding served with coconut ice cream, and my guest opted for the fried bananas with ice cream. I did not expect the coconut pudding to be served in round, fried portions dipped in authentic Burmese batter. There were five pudding balls served around fresh strawberry slices with a generous serving of ice cream in the center. The pudding was served warm, and the smooth consistency and lightly sweet flavor of the centers of the battered dessert was very pleasing. My guest’s dessert featured four slices of bananas fried in the same batter as the pudding, and was also served with ice cream.  Both desserts provided a light, satisfying finish to our meal.

From our seats near the kitchen, we observed many dishes as they were en route to other diners.  Lovely presentation and generous portions were definitely the norm.  Upon our arrival, only one other customer was present; however, ten additional parties came to dine that evening—good business for a newer restaurant on a typically slow evening!  The diner who was there when we arrived told us that she loves Hornbill’s food, and told us that this was her sixth meal here in the past three days—a nice tribute from a loyal, repeat customer.

The word is spreading about the community’s newest ethnic restaurant and Hornbill’s popularity is steadily increasing.  They have already earned a Yelp rating of 4.5 stars, and customers who check-in on Yelp before dining receive 15% off of their check.  The head chef is a well-experienced Burmese chef, having worked for another Bay Area Burmese restaurant for many years.  If you’ve been looking for alternative local dining options with excellent food and appealing atmosphere, you owe it to yourself to visit Hornbill Restaurant. Hornbill is busiest on Friday nights when live music and dancing is featured from 7:00 PM until closing.  The venue has a stage and a dance floor, complete with a disco ball, and plenty of seating, making this a convenient, close-to-home location for Friday night dining and entertainment. Enjoy!

3550 San Pablo Dam Road, Suite J in El Sobrante | (510) 964-4293

Hours:   Open 7 Days from 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM, 5:00 PM – 9:00 PM

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