If you happen to spend a little time inside Rasa Sayang, a Malaysian-Chinese-Thai restaurant nestled in a Roswell strip mall, you might pick up on the same couple of clues as me.
The phone often is ringing. Bags of to-go food often are leaving the kitchen. The dining room is otherwise calm, a quiet place to drink a beer and order a big table’s worth of food.
The husband and wife team of Peik and Daniel Ng have owned this place for 18 years. Any restaurant that survives that long knows a little about giving people what they want.
By the looks of it, their customers mostly want delivery Chinese in the Americanized style.
But, in recent meals at Rasa Sayang, a name that translates roughly to “I’ve got that loving feeling,” I’ve wondered if all the folks ordering delivery from this place have noticed the Malaysian dishes on offer. Rasa Sayang happily will serve up General Tso’s chicken, beef with broccoli, salt and pepper shrimp, and any number of Americanized Chinese dishes, but it also offers a spread of traditional dishes served in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
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I’ve found the acat to be a good place to start. Acat, sometimes spelled “achat” or “acar,” is a cool pickled salad with cabbage and carrots, the vinegar balanced with sweet and spicy flavors. You might even think of it as Malaysian kimchee, though that Korean staple produces soft, fermented cabbage, and acat is crunchy and fresh. At Rasa Sayang, the acat comes with a healthy sprinkling of crushed peanuts that richens the crunchy bites.
You might pair that with the lobak roll, a sausage of ground pork and shrimp wrapped in fried tofu skin. The roll is cut into bite-sized hunks perfect for dipping into the accompanying thick, dark, salty-sweet sauce. It reminded me of Indonesian kecap manis, a sweet, reduced soy sauce. It’s a rich, heavy snack, maybe best with a bottle of Tsingtao.
There are more familiar fried appetizers, too. Keropok might sound more familiar if I just called it fried shrimp toast. I’ve seen more elaborate riffs, but this simple version, just a paste of shrimp fried on bread, hits the spot just fine. Same goes for the roti canai, a lightly greasy pancake that hits marks of flaky, chewy and salty just enough when dipped in the accompanying bowl of curry.
Speaking of curry, the chicken kerang pedas may be the most reliable crowd pleaser. It is rich, with a dark, reddish curry and a stir-fry of onions, peppers and chicken sliced into thin strips. I could taste the depth of an old recipe, the warm stuff on long-simmered comfort food.
On the other hand, nasi goreng istimewa, a fried rice dish typically richened with funkier or more potent flavors, didn’t hit the heights that I’d hoped for. Though the menu says this dish is fried with curry, if I had asked for pineapple shrimp fried rice, I believe I’d have been served the same thing.
Rendeng, that traditionally rich and tender stew of beef, spices, lemongrass and coconut milk, falls flat here, too. The meat is tender enough, and there’s a hint of the spices that should make this dish sing, but not in the magnitude it should be.
One of the better noodle dishes is penang kueh teow, a flat rice-noodle dish heavy on scallions, shrimp and chicken. (Some people might be more familiar with the spelling char kway teow.) The rice noodles have a satisfying, chewy heft. I ordered this dish extra hot and, even though that didn’t get me a flavor close to what I’d call spicy, it was one of the more flavorful dishes I’ve tasted at Rasa Sayang.
On one of those visits, I brought a friend who’s spent time eating around Southeast Asia. He, like me, was a little disappointed that these dishes weren’t as flavorful as they could be — that the sour flavors weren’t as sour as they could be, that the spicy flavors never reached anywhere near hot, that the ground meat in the lobak roll wasn’t as aggressively seasoned as it could be.
All of it still pleasantly washed down with a bottle of Tsingtao or two, but we speculated that the milder flavors might be a reason that Rasa Sayang is still in business after all these years. After 18 years, they indeed seem to know what people want.