Glorious curry, made with love: The café tucked away in Trafford’s tiniest village


There’s something slightly unusual about first going to Nila’s Burmese Cafe. But – and I must stress this – not in a bad way.

It’s not a wild west saloon situation, where the piano player winds down, and everyone turns to look at the stranger suspiciously, as you prepare to be grabbed by the collar and the belt loops and hurled out into the gutter. Remove the opposite.

It’s more that everyone already seems to know each other, as if you’ve accidentally wandered off the street and into someone’s living room or kitchen. People eat, they sit, they go, they pick up food, and it’s all first names.

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Nila comes out from her tiny kitchen – seriously, it’s tiny – and she starts berating the young man on the next table to me, sitting with two others who barely register it.

Why hasn’t he emailed her back? They need to talk about the catering for her wedding. He bats her off, he says he did reply. She maintains he didn’t. This back and forth goes on for a bit.

“Fine, find someone else, I’m not doing your wedding anymore,” she says, and with the merest hint of a smile, she storms back into the kitchen.



Nila’s Burmese Kitchen

When we speak a little later, and realizing I’d been sitting on the next table during this exchange, she seems mildly horrified.

But I think it tells you everything you need to know about the business she’s created. These folks clearly stopped being customers a very, very long time ago, and now they’re friends. Proper friends.

She didn’t know them before she opened up the cafe, seven years ago. They work in Trafford Park, started coming in every day, and just kept on coming. They eat here every single lunchtime. And they’re not the only ones.

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In the absence of the old fashioned work canteen, this place fits the bill for many working among the bewildering mix of businesses in one of the least regarded parts of the city.

Nila’s is on Third Avenue, one of the unlikely, beautifully-preserved streets in the middle of Trafford Park, remnants of the Edwardian workers’ village which was decimated by slum clearance.

The gridiron layout and the street names are a throwback to when the Ford Motor Company built an assembly plant here in 1911.

Another regular customer, who is in his 80s, told her that he was christened at St Antony’s, just around the corner, though the neighbourhood, Trafford Park Village, was quite different back then.



The pork curry at Nila’s Burmese Cafe in Trafford Park

It’s comforting, particularly at the moment, to find somewhere like this. Sadly, maybe it’s a rarity these days.

Nila herself is certainly a rarity. Put it this way, I’d met her for barely two minutes, when she’d agreed to drop everything and talk to me, despite being frantically busy.

Her car had broken down that morning, and coincidentally, I’d decided to eat at her café on the day she was about to launch her own menu at the smart Ducie Street Warehouse in town, which will run for a month.

Plus, she had one of her super club events on the following night too. It’s highly likely that the very last thing she wanted was me holding her up and asking her stuff for her that’s probably none of my business. But she does it anyway.

Born in Burma, raised in London, educated at University in Manchester and a career civil servant for 19 years, she decided to open her own place because it was a case of ‘now or never’.

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She started out on the food market at Levenshulme in 2014, as well as doing a few pop-ups with the likes of the Trove bakery and the Runaway brewery, but always had half an eye out for a place.

She says she accidentally found the spot for her café while passing through the area, and though restaurant operators might agonize over how a precise city center location can make or break a business, Nila’s place proves that if you build it, they will come.



Nila started out at Levenshulme Market

“All Burmese people love food,” she says. “We talk about it all the time. So I get really anxious when Burmese people come in! I’m afraid they’re not going to like it!

“The influence is probably closer to Laos, although Thailand is our biggest neighbour. But we take dishes from all over, from India, China, Thailand, and then we make it our own.

“We have a dish called a danbauk, which is basically a biryani, from the Bangladesh border, but it’s infiltrated over.”

Nila’s menu changes all the time – there’s always fish on Fridays, and this drizzly Thursday afternoon (she only opens at lunchtime), it’s the glorious slow-cooked pork curry, heavy with tamarind, with rice and her own take on a sriracha-esque chilli sauce, that is flying out of the kitchen. It’s heart and soul-warming food.

“That’s a northern Burmese pork dish, originating from the Shan tribe, so tamarind is the prominent flavor that you get. You’ll find that on the Thai border,” she says. “On the other side, it’s sold as Burmese pork curry in the Thai markets.”

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Nila opens for just a few hours a day, from 12pm till around 2.30pm, and has no great compulsion to change that.



A home from home

“When you change your career, you really want to love what you’re doing,” she says. “You’ve got to love it. But you have to have a balance, I don’t want it to take over my life, so that’s why I’m reluctant to get an evening place.

“I was maybe looking for a place before lockdown in the city center, but not now. So it’s kind of morphed into a perfect situation.”

She holds a couple of supper evening clubs a month, and the occasional brunch club of a weekend too.

And somehow, she has found spare time to work with organizations like Back On Track, taking volunteers on who have had issues with homelessness, mental health, or drugs and alcohol, and offering to help develop vocational skills.

Trade, though brisk, is still not back to full tilt since lockdown, however. Though she did takeaway when all restaurants were forced to close-and then the NHS plonked a COVID testing center about 25 meters from her front door-the footfall simply was n’t there to replace her lost business.

Even now, with flexible working, things aren’t quite back to normal, and she has a slightly reduced menu. But she’s getting there.

The groom and his dining partners get up to leave. “Bye Nila, lots of love,” he shouts. “Love you too,” she shouts back from the kitchen.

There is indeed lots of love here. In the food, in the bricks, in the mortar. Maybe go and feel some of it for yourself.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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