If you are sitting in a well-appointed room in an air-conditioned mall, can the dishes that arrive at your table honestly be called “street food”?
Such is the oxymoron du jour, served at a restaurant near you. The farm is fine and everything, as a precursor to the table at some places. But if you’re out to establish your big-flavor, just-like-the-old-country cred, you instead harken back to the mean streets of Bombay (Chai Pani), Bangkok (Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft) or Mexico City, Caracas and points between (Calle Latina).
Now, we have Mamak, a Malaysian restaurant inside a Buford Highway strip mall, newly arrived on the scene with a name that literally means “food stall.” The 60 or so items on the menu seem almost like a survey of the various Indian, Chinese and native Malay flavors and preparations that make up the complex patois of the national cuisine. You will find satays, curries, rice plates, vegetables cooked in alluringly weird-smelling sambals amped up with shrimp paste, and so many kinds of noodles you won’t know where to start.
If you’re the kind of person who falls for international restaurants that proffer a new dining experience, prepare to crush hard on this place. I’ve been three times, and I want to return again and again, if only for the purposes of noodle taxonomy. But the food is reliably honest and soulful, generous in portion and seasoning. It can taste unfamiliar but never unfriendly.
The room, plain but pleasant in that bright lights-shiny tiles way of Buford Highway, has rainbow-striped walls and a cheerful chalkboard with a message that exhorts newcomers to learn about Malaysian cooking. It feels just right at lunch, when the room fills with folks who order extravagantly and drink sweet, milky “barley ice.” Beverages are limited; you can’t order any alcohol but, if you ask for water, the waitress will give you the choice of iced or warm.
I don’t even know where to start with the food. Yes, I do. The roti canai — a flaky pan-fried Indian flatbread that’s simultaneously crisp and stretchy. You dip it in a small portion of coconut chicken curry, which tastes so forthright and warming that you promptly order a large serving of coconut chicken curry.
I would encourage you to satisfy your spice jones with fish head curry, which is far less eyebally than you might imagine. Picture instead a deep soup tureen filled with eggplant, beans, tomatoes and fried tofu in a milky russet sauce. The pieces of fish, delightfully, are ribbons of deep-fried fish collar. You are soon extracting lush chunks of battered flesh from the deep pockets of bone and feeling satisfied with yourself.
Nor should you miss the sambal okra, a brilliant heap of emerald-green okra stir fried with peppers and a chili-shrimp paste sambal sauce that smells strong but gives your very soul an umami contact high. People at our table expressed shock at how much they loved this okra. If you’re in an adventurous mood, then by all means add an order of Assam Ikan Bilis — tiny anchovy fry with peanuts and onions in a tamarind chili sauce. If you are ever going to catch the Southeast Asian fever for sweet-n-stanky flavors, this dish will be your gateway.
Dialing down, you can find many of the same iconic Malaysian dishes that you’d order across the street at Penang, albeit with the imprint of a different kitchen sensibility. The rendang here sports a thick gravy of reduced sweet spices, tomato and coconut over chewy (borderline tough) chunks of beef stew meat. It’s good, but the Hainanese chicken is a wonder — slow poached, hacked into chunks of bone and velvet meat, and served with special rice made with the poaching liquid. Make sure to try all the chili dipping sauces, one red and limpid, another coarse with grated ginger.
The curry laksa, Malaysia’s famous noodle soup, brings a daunting portion of noodles, bone-in chicken (or spare rib), and potatoes in a rich, oily sauce. I don’t like it as well as others I’ve had, with more layered flavor and noodles with more elasticity and snap. (I almost wonder if Mamak uses dried spaghetti.) But I think a lot of people will like it, particularly with the add-on of yong tau foo, i.e., soft vegetables stuffed with fish sausage.
This brings us to the wide world of noodles — noodle soups, noodle stir fries and “toss noodles” with entrees. I loved the oily pearl noodles, little plugs like Italian trofie, stir-fried with soy, shrimp and pork. Combo flat rice noodles with all kinds of seafood and meat taste bland in their egg gravy, but turn comforting once you give them a toss and add a drop or two of soy sauce from the container on the table. Other options include hokkien mee, chow kway teow and other stars of the Southeast Asian pasta world.
I’ve never had even a vague memory of hunger at the end of a meal at Mamak, so I haven’t been able to try one of the shaved ice desserts, some flavored with sweet beans, others with peanut or pandan leaf jelly. If you wouldn’t mind doing me a favor, let me know how they are. I’d like a report on a noodle dish or two, as well. Better yet, I’ll just see you there. I suspect I’ve got a lot of Mamak in my future.
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