When it comes to dining, Mandalay residents have no shortage of options. The city has, according to most, Myanmar’s best food. From morning till night, foodies can feast on delicious noodles, traditional snacks, fresh barbecue and more at a reasonable price. But as rent prices go up and lifestyles have changed, many of Mandalay’s smaller dining institutions have been replaced by fast-food shops and convenience marts.
But Pan Cherry Noodle House & Café has stood the test of time, recently celebrating its 40th year anniversary. The humble shop, a simple two-story building with an open-air ground floor and a small air-conditioned cafe above, belies the intricate flavors and textures of their signature Shan noodles. It’s because of these tasty bowls of noodles that Pan Cherry has a legion of fans, in Myanmar and overseas. What many of the fans don’t realize, however, is the backstory of how the restaurant came to be.
It all started in 1978 when U Kyaw Zawl moved from Kyauk Me, in the northern Shan State, to Mandalay. With only a few kyats to his name, U Kyaw Zawl found an old garage on a side street and set up a small shop he named Pan Cherry Noodle House. He began selling Shan noodles from dawn till dusk and quickly word spread about his delicious dishes. But the early success did not cause him to rest on his laurels. He pushed on, determined to make Pan Cherry the best noodle shop in the area.
‘The old man is the most hard-working person I have ever known’, remarked his son, Nay Win Oo, who went on to sing the praises of his mom who worked alongside U Kyaw Zawl. ‘She is the only person in the world who can match his dedication. She raised all four of her children in her baby sling while making noodles.’
As the family grew, so did the business. In the late 90s, they moved Pan Cherry around the corner to its current location on 25 th Street. The ground floor was used as the café and kitchen and the family lived upstairs. The hard-working couple served enough bowls of noodles and saved enough money to eventually send their son, Nay Min Oo, to the United States for university.
While his parents were running Pan Cherry in Mandalay, half-way around the world Nay Min Oo met May, another Burmese student. The two were studying at separate universities in the state of Virginia but happened to meet at a special semester program. The state’s slogan ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ turned out to be true- they fell in love and, after graduating, the young couple married.
Upon moving back to Mandalay in 2015, the newlyweds first stop was at Pan Cherry for a bowl of Shan noodles. To Nay Min Oo, the shop felt like home but for May, it was her first visit to the family business. ‘I was very curious why this restaurant has existed for nearly 40 years and what made it so special that old customers come every morning for a bowl of noodles’, May said. She quickly found the answer to Pan Cherry’s longevity and popularity: the food! In a city filled with tea shops and noodle stalls, it is the food at Pan Cherry attracts regular customers.
One couple, who runs a stall at nearby Zaycho Market, has been coming nearly every morning for decades. Another group of retired ladies have been dining at Pan Cherry so long that they remember when a bowl of noodles cost only a few kyat. And countless tourists have made Pan Cherry a daily pit stop on their Mandalay itinerary- they come once for a meal and find themselves returning the next day and the next!
For May and Nay Min Oo, seeing these loyal customers and other enthusiastic diners sparked their interest. Although they never had any intention of getting involved in the family restaurant business, they saw Pan Cherry as a way to blend their love of food with their entrepreneurial spirit. And fortunately, the timing was perfect. U Kyaw Zawl handed over the management of the restaurant to his son and daughter-in-law not long after their return to Myanmar.
Since then, the shop has continued to thrive. While much has remained the same, there have been some small, subtle changes over the last few years. New items have been added to the menu such as chicken wings, which are now one of the most popular items. The upstairs of the shop has been converted to a coffee-shop style setting, ideal for students or friends looking for a quiet respite from the Mandalay traffic and heat.
May has been hands-on in helping to improve the dining experience without shaking up the low-key vibe of Pan Cherry. ‘When I started managing this restaurant, I learned about new ingredients, recipes, and cooking techniques. I also shared my home-cooking techniques with our kitchen staff. This mutual learning has led to a great improvement in our dishes,’ May adds.
Being involved in the business has also provided May with the answer to her original question: What is it about Pan Cherry’s noodles that make them stand out from the others? Although sourcing the freshest and best quality ingredients is important, she has discovered that ingredients, only, are not enough. ‘Just like Mr. Ping from the movie Kung Fu Panda said, “there is no secret ingredient’’. Every noodle shop in Mandalay uses the same basic ingredients; however, every one of them has its own ways of preparing Shan noodles,’ May states. The recipes and methods used by U Kyaw Zawl in 1978 has been perfected over time and that is why every dish from the Pan Cherry kitchen is delicious.
With the young, enthusiastic couple now at the helm and the Pan Cherry reputation continuing to grow, it’s very possible that the restaurant will be around for another 40 years. May and Nay Min Oo are planning to open a second branch with bigger space and more artistic decoration soon. But the original shop will remain open, a family legacy that is one of a kind in Mandalay city.
Address: 25th Street between 82nd x 83rd Streets, Mandalay
Tel: 09 797194038
Opens at 7am – 8pm