Step into the Tabata restaurant on Ninth Avenue behind the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and you will be sure to get authentic Japanese ramen. But the chef and owner, Maung Htein Linn, is from Burma – a country whose varied curries and cuisine are more similar to Thai and Indian cooking than to Japanese.
Born in 1967 in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma), Htein Linn also owns two other Japanese restaurants in the city, Tabata 2 and Nippori. He came by his expertise in Japanese cuisine living and working for 11 years in Japan.
“Many customers in my restaurants here are Japanese because they like non-altered authentic Japanese taste,” he says, declining to share his recipes. “Maung,” which means “mister” and is used to refer to young Burmese men, is his nickname but it has become his first name among non-Burmese co-workers. As there is no surname or first name in Burmese, his real name is Htein Linn.
Like many Burmese in exile, Htein Linn would return to his homeland if the country gains political and economic stability, and, like many other Burmese, he supports Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to lead the country. But he says the time is still premature for him to go back and open a Japanese restaurant in Myanmar, which he refers to by its historic name of Burma, rather than by the name chosen by the military government in 1989. He does not yet trust the current regime.
Htein Linn was studying zoology at Rangoon University when pro-democracy protests erupted in 1988. Like many other university students, he took part in the movement led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The university was closed, and for a while he worked at the supermarket owned by his mother. Seeing no future under the oppressive military government, however, he left Myanmar for Tokyo, where he had some Burmese friends.
Pursuing his interest in zoology was out of question. “I had no choice but to work in a Japanese restaurant but then, I started enjoying the restaurant work,” says Htein Linn. He worked mostly at one restaurant where he learned how to make noodle dishes called ramen. Initially challenged by having to learn Japanese, he eventually mastered the language and preferred it over English as the language for this interview.
While in Tokyo, his wife applied for green cards for the couple at the American embassy, and having received them, they came to New York in 2002. “I was not too excited about coming here because I knew I had to start from scratch,” says the restaurateur. “The first three years in New York was a difficult time because western culture is totally different form that of Asia.” He had to start his way up from the bottom in restaurant work here, even though he had attained a supervisory position in Japan. He started working in Japanese restaurants in NYC specializing in ramen.
By 2005 Htein Linn was ready to open his own Japanese ramen restaurant but without a credit history, there was no landlord who would lease space to him. Then, in August 2011 he met a Jewish landlord whose grandfather had lived in Burma during the British colonial days, and Htein Linn was finally able to open his own ramen restaurant, Tabata, with 45 seats.
The restaurant was successful and the landlord offered him another space in the vicinity, which Htein Linn named Tabata 2. “Tabata” is one of the stations of a loop-line train station that circles Tokyo.
Just two months ago, he opened a third Japanese restaurant and named it “Nippori,” also the name of a loop-line station. Nippori, located on 51st Street across from the Gershwin Theatre, has 60 seats and serves not only ramen but also sushi and other Japanese dishes. Hi wife and in-laws help to run the three restaurants.
Htein Linn envisions one day opening an izakaya, a kind of Japanese tapas restaurant, where customers would start the dinner with drinks and appetizer-size dishes, but conclude with ramen. Whatever the style he chooses, he vows to maintain that authentic Japanese taste he learned to prepare in Japan.