Looking at the intersection of Niagara and Austin streets from the right angle, you can frame a snapshot of the West Side's past, present and future.
On the southeast corner is Gondola Macaroni, turning out fresh pasta and ravioli since the 1960s, founded by an Italian immigrant at a time when Black Rock's Italian population supported dozens of bakeries, butcher shops, groceries and restaurants.
On the northeastern corner is Sun Restaurant Buffalo, opened in November 2010 by Kevin and Stephanie Lin, a couple from Dawei, Burma. A few weeks ago, the Lins reopened Sun as a dedicated 70-seat restaurant after removing a grocery that previously dominated the space, and hired a trained Burmese chef. Its new menu bumps up prices a dollar or two and focuses on Burmese specialties and Thai classics.
On its freshly painted walls, paintings of elephants and children in Burmese dress are illuminated by recessed lighting. The beer and wine license is expected soon. Servers wear T-shirts emblazoned with the Buffalo Spree 2012 award for Best Asian restaurant (an honor it shared with Tonawanda's Peking Quick One).
Twenty years ago, the Lins started with little but hope, and a plan: win entrance to America and start a business. "I wanted to make money," said Kevin Lin. "I know outside is better than Burma, so I start making dream."
When the Lins moved to Buffalo in 1997, they found one other Burmese person in town. Like the Lins, he was a supermarket sushi chef.
By the time the Lins' restaurant opened at 1989 Niagara St., Burmese were probably the fastest-growing ethnic group in Buffalo.
Between those directed here by the U.S. State Department and others who moved to Buffalo because of its Burmese community, more than 6,000 Burmese – more than 2 percent of Buffalo's population – have settled here. That estimate is from Eva Hassett, director of the International Institute of Buffalo, one of the city's four refugee resettlement agencies.
"Buffalo's Burmese community is large, growing fast and significant in many ways," Hassett said. While population numbers across Buffalo continue to shrink, the last census found growth in three areas. One neighborhood saw a huge lake-view apartment building open. The other two areas were Grant-Ferry and Black Rock-Riverside, neighborhoods that get most of the refugee resettlement, Hassett said.
"I would argue that it's more than just coincidence," she said. "This is a great example of how Buffalo is going to move into its next phase, which is going to be a beautiful, highly diverse phase, and it's so exciting."
When an ethnic community becomes established enough to support its own restaurant – a place where they can get a taste of home – other neighbors benefit, too. They get a glimpse inside another culture, a place where strangers can become familiar – and they get another choice for dinner.
The corner of Niagara and Austin is likely the only place between Manhattan and Toronto where you can taste Burmese dishes such as own no koksware, coconut curry chicken noodle soup, la peth thoat, a salad built on pickled tea leaves and crunchy fried peas, and mont hin gar, a tangy fish soup with hard-boiled eggs, caramelized onion broth and banana stem used as a vegetable. The dishes share ingredients and flavors that might be familiar from Indian, Thai and Chinese, but they're purely Burmese, said Stephanie Lin.
Based on family recipes she learned as a girl, these dishes mirror Burmese restaurant fare, except less salty. "You don't want too much salty, a little sweet," she said. So far, they're drawing people from near and far, Kevin Lin said.
"We had to control our quality and make more consistency, so we got a better chef," said Kevin Lin. "Our job is to get reputation."
> A classic success story
If the story of Sun Restaurant Buffalo seems familiar, it's because it's a classic Buffalo immigrant-to-success story, with different last names.
Stephanie was introduced to Kevin by her brother in their hometown of Dawei, in the southern part of Burma (now Myanmar), which extends along the Andaman Sea, beside Thailand. In Dawei, about 100 miles from the Thai capital of Bangkok, Kevin saw little opportunity to make a career. "It's a very poor country, hard to make it," he said.
In 1990, Kevin Lin left to find work in Japan, so he could send money home and plan for the future. All he could find was a restaurant job, even though he knew little more than how to make rice. "But my mind I can change," said Kevin. "I can learn. I am [a] serious man, I don't want to be dishwasher forever. I learn quick. Then I become sous chef in Japan."
Back in Dawei, Stephanie earned a zoology degree, from then-Rangoon University, and worked with her sister in an import-export business. Stephanie and Kevin got engaged, and entered the lottery for U.S. visas five years in a row.
In 1996, Stephanie won. Kevin returned from Japan, and they got married. Two months later, they arrived in America, on a Singapore Air flight, with a few suitcases of clothes and a few thousand dollars.
Kevin started working in a Manhattan sushi restaurant, while Stephanie got a job under the World Trade Center, at a jewelry kiosk. Soon thereafter, Kevin met a countryman from Dawei, who was working under contract making sushi in a New Jersey supermarket. He helped Kevin get a similar contract, and when Kevin saw the chance to get another store, he trained Stephanie to make sushi as well.
> Looking for more work
When he got the chance to move to a larger store, a Wegmans in Erie, Pa., the Lins moved to Erie. They took on a second Wegmans in Erie, but he wanted more work. So in 1997, he took over the sushi making at the Amherst Street Wegmans in Buffalo. Stephanie remained in Erie, and he drove back and forth. "We met about twice a week," he said.
In 2000, having given up the Erie stores, they took on the Transit Road Wegmans, and Stephanie moved to Buffalo as well. "Buffalo is more open to us, more friendly," said Kevin. "Easier to make customer service, talk to people."
By 2001 the Lins had become American citizens, their Social Security numbers four digits apart. They were closing in on their dream, even scouting an Elmwood location for a restaurant, before the Sept. 11 attacks put their plans on hold.
In the meantime, Lin had started buying tax-sale houses and foreclosed properties and fixing them up, working on them after his sushi shift. The sushi business, working under contract, is steady but "not something to retire on," he said. "We can make money, but never have job security." He credits "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" by Robert Kiyosaki with helping him learn "how to buy, how to sell, how to fix, how to rent."
In 2003, the Lins welcomed Max, their first child, followed by Nolan in 2004. With Stephanie busy with the children, the restaurant plans were shelved. In 2006, when the Niagara Falls Wegmans opened, Lin was the sushi guy there, too.
Working on sushi by day and house rehabilitation by night, Kevin added to his property list, renting out apartments. He brought his mother from Burma to care for the children in their Wheatfield home.
The 13th property Lin bought was 1989 Niagara St. "One of my handymen recommend I buy this house and turn [it] into grocery store, because [the] Burmese population is growing," he said. "It was a good deal, so I bought it, to make a business for Stephanie."
The business opened last year as Sun International Market, mostly Burmese and Asian produce and groceries, with a small kitchen in the back. There were a few tables and a grab-bag menu that included Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai dishes, with a few Burmese ones.
Stephanie's restaurant customers were asking for more Burmese dishes, and with the opening of other Burmese groceries on Niagara Street, the grocery was becoming more work than it was worth. By the end of 2011, the Lins decided to bet on Burmese and Thai food, and turn the whole place into a restaurant.
> Part of the community
In the meantime, the Lins have become part of a growing group of professional Burmese taking a role in Buffalo, donating time and money to their community. Most of the Burmese immigrants since 2002 weren't as fortunate as the Lins, arriving after spending years in refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia.
Kevin Lin is on the board of Sasanahita, the Burmese community association, which provides services and guidance to Burmese immigrants and residents. He's vice chairman of the funeral association, and the Lins support the Burmese Buddhist monastery a few blocks from their restaurant.
He also has seven Burmese working with his sushi operations at the Amherst Street Wegmans, and Stephanie has an all-Burmese restaurant staff.
Kevin is still working 70-hour weeks, and Stephanie nearly as much. But Kevin manages to sneak in some rounds of golf at Deerwood. He's always liked the game, since serving as a caddy back in Dawei. Now he has time for other dreams. For instance, of his son Max becoming a professional golfer. The kid is 9, but has a sweet swing, he said.
"I hire instructor for him, who say, ‘I don't know what to teach him,' Kevin said, beaming. "My dream is I want him to be golfer, a pro. A champion."