Plaza Voices: Up, Close and Cultural

World Refugee Day is an international day observed on June 20 of every year to raise awareness of the refugee crisis. This day is used to commemorate the strength, courage, and perseverance of millions of refugees worldwide. In celebration, Plaza Voices is featuring posts about local entrepreneurs from the refugee community.

By Asmeret Tesfay

Upon entering Mango House–the international space located in Aurora that provides an opportunity for refugees as well as immigrants to operate a business–I made sure I ate light that sunny day. I was looking forward to indulging in something different and hearing about Siri Tan’s voyage. Siri Tan is the co-owner of Urban Burma, a food stall serving Burmese food in Mango House. The other half of Urban Burma is Siri’s older brother, Martin Tan. (Quick geography lesson: Burma, also known as Myanmar, is located in Southeast Asia and neighbors Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, China and India. Don’t worry–I didn’t exactly know either.)

Back to the cuisine–I ordered lunch and got comfortable in a corner of the dining area designated for Urban Burma customers. Waiting for my lunch to arrive, I observed a steady flow of customers that were mostly repeat customers. Once our food arrived we all seemed to have one thing in common–we had our heads down for quite some time and I can’t say for sure if we came up for air, but it didn’t seem like it for the first few minutes. My stomach was on cloud 9 singing the tune of mmmmmmm. In that moment of food bliss it confirmed why there were repeat customers in the dining area. It has been said that food is the common ground and the universal language. This Burmese deliciousness tasted like what real food should taste like: fresh, light and so full of flavors. Your palate and body will instantly recognize it. I felt bamboozled by food I have consumed prior to this experience (excluding my mother’s). As the late Anthony Bourdain stated, “When someone cooks for you, they are saying something. They are telling you about themselves: where they come from, who they are, and what makes them happy.”

The menu at Urban Burma doesn’t overwhelm you and all the dishes on their menu list the ingredients they use. I mentioned to Siri that his food tasted authentic. Authentic is not a word/term I use often, so whether he knew it or not, it was a praise. Siri is the youngest of five siblings who was born in Burma and left at 25 years old. I asked how and when he came into the States and Siri stated that he met his wife who is from California in Thailand. In 2010, Siri landed to California and married his wife, later leaving California in 2014 and entering Denver. Adding to their family, they now have a young daughter. Siri says, “Denver is my home. There is a variety of different people and it is more my type. Denver has laid back vibes.” 

Through our comfortable and fluid conversation, here are a few things I asked Siri:

What do you miss about Burma?

I miss the street food and the variety of food. I also miss my friends and family.

What challenges have you faced being a refugee in America?

We didn’t have much difficulty fortunately. Nothing direct. I don’t take things personal. I have a filter. I don’t let people I don’t know affect me. I enjoy my life. Life is short. I am in the present–I think less of the future. I like to think of myself as someone who is positive. As Siri thought more, he stated, in the beginning, “when I arrived in America I was taking ESL (English as a second language classes) classes and I didn’t drive. I did not have my driver’s license, so my wife took me everywhere. That was a little tough for me–I felt like a little child." He also mentioned California highways were definitely more intimidating than Denver’s. 

How did you and your brother start cooking?

I used to not like cooking. I did it, but I didn’t enjoy it. My brother Martin liked to cook more than me. Living in America, I started missing good food. One night, as I was driving for Lyft, I picked up a couple who triggered a memory for me as they had climbed in with a sweet aroma of a Burmese ingredient. After that trip, I started craving noodles, so I called my brother and asked how do I make a certain type of noodles and I was surprised I did a good job. I started cooking more and started to think if you want to and you are interested, you can learn everything. I also visit a couple of Burmese families here in Denver to get some pointers. I started watching and reading about cooking. My sister sent me an ingredient book and I continued to read. The recipes at Urban Burma is all created by my brother Martin and I. If you were to travel to Burma you wouldn’t be able to find noodle dishes like ours that offer vegetarian and/or Vegan. I noticed here in Denver there is are a lot of people who eat vegetarian and vegan. I wanted everyone to have a choice.

How were you able to get the opportunity at Mango House?

I met the current landlord when I arrived to Denver in 2014 through a previous organization I worked with. The landlord mentioned to me he had an idea of buying the now Mango House building and extended an opportunity to me. I was thinking to open a food truck, but the cost of buying one and the equipment was costly. To make the deal even sweeter, the property owner bought most of the kitchen equipment in the Urban Burma food stall, so it was a no brainer for me and Martin. That saved us money we didn’t have, so it was safe for us. “Without this opportunity, I don’t think I could have started a business and now we have been here for two years.”

What do you want people to know who have a common misconception about refugees in America?

There are good and bad people everywhere, it is not only refugees or immigrants. As a human being, we all love freedom. No one is perfect. I like to grab the good things from all cultures. Also, there is good and bad things from all cultures. 

What are your next steps?

I already have my food trailer (the licenses are still pending). The food trailer will also be called Urban Burma (look out for it) and the goal is to have my own restaurant. 

What is unique about Urban Burma?

We grind our own Masala (a spice blend). We receive it from our aunt in Burma.

What is a fun fact about Burmese food and Burma?

The Tea Leaf salad that is on our menu is only from Burma. It is a specific dish from Burma. 

Burma has seven different ethnic tribes.

Well, that wraps up a delicious sit-down with co-owner of Urban Burma, Siri Tan. Fellow patrons, wherever you are located in the Metro area–if you enjoy good food then traveling to get some should be your last worry. Urban Burma is located inside of Mango House: 10180 E. Colfax Ave, Aurora, CO 80010, open Tuesday-Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. 

Quick tip: Mango House is facing Colfax Ave. (crossroad is Galena street). The front doors are always closed, so you would have to drive to the back of the building and/or walk to the back and enter.

The Denver Public Library's Cultural Inclusivity department collaborates with Denver's multicultural community to create equitable opportunities for learning, discovery, and connection.

We offer Plazas, an open community space where people from all over the world connect with information and resources, building Denver’s global community. Come to practice a language, prepare for citizenship, pursue your goals, and create your future. Whatever you’re doing, we can help!

Written by Plaza Voices on June 22, 2021