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Malaysian Food Is Worth the Trip to Chinatown, and Mamak Malaysian has Some of the Best

Hungry for nasi lemak? Make haste to Mamak Malaysian.

The space itself sets Mamak apart from the scores of other tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the shopping center. It's five times as large as the myriad Chinese spots, and it's decorated in a much more modern but homey style. There are chic dark-wood tables and black leather chairs accented by pops of bright green faux bamboo shoots and red sliding doors that close to create private dining spaces. The whole vibe is one of stylish luxury, but fortunately, the prices are as low as you'd find anywhere else in Chinatown.

Not every dish at Mamak is a hit, but there are at least 150 items on the menu, so it's no ­surprise that some, like the mee goreng, are less ­impressive than others. Mee goreng is a ­Chinese-inspired stir-fry much like chow mein, with noodles, tofu, shrimp, chicken and a dry curry sauce. The Singapore stir-fried rice noodle plate is similarly unimpressive; the flavor of cooking oil masks the noodles and spices. If you want stir-fry, stick to one of the numerous Chinese restaurants in the same area.

But if you want the best of south Asia combined in a single bowl, try the curry noodle soup. The menu lists it as a coconut curry with lemongrass and young tofu, but digging through the velvety smooth yellow broth and toothsome egg noodles, we discovered fried tofu, chewy fish skin and zucchini stuffed with ground pork. It was like hunting for mysterious and delicious Easter eggs with a little plastic spoon.

Nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia, is a little bit of everything that makes the country's cuisine so intriguing.
Troy Fields
Nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia, is a little bit of everything that makes the country's cuisine so intriguing.

Location Info

Map

Mamak Malaysian Restaurant

9889 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77036

Category: Restaurant > Chinese

Region: Outer Loop - SW

Details

Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Roti canai: $4

Mamak taro shrimp: $6.50

Curry noodle soup: $7.50

Mee goreng: $8.50

Singapore stir-fried rice noodle: $8.50

Mixed vegetable in belacan sauce: $8.50

Nasi lemak: $7.50

Pangan ikan: Market Price

Lobster with lemongrass: $21.95

Ice kakang dessert: $5

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The soup is the edible embodiment of the Thai, Indian and Chinese melting pot in Malaysia, with an emphasis on the tart lemongrass so ubiquitous on Mamak's menu. Like most Malaysian food, it's only mildly spicy, but the combination of so many diverse elements — coconut, shrimp paste, coriander, chiles, fish skin, citrus — in a single meal gives it layers and dimensions not found in other Asian cuisines less influenced by the myriad cultures around them.

Similar flavors come through in several other dishes on the menu, including the pangan ikan, a whole barbecued fish wrapped in a banana leaf and topped with the "Chef's special sauce," as well as the show-stopping lobsters—two of them, steamed, then rolled in sambal belacan, a lemongrass, chile, tamarind, shrimp and ginger paste. They're brought to the table on a bed of fresh romaine, cracked open, juicy and ready to devour, all for only $21.95. It's the seafood and sambal merger of flavors that mesmerized me the most during my meals at Mamak. Or perhaps it's just the sambal belacan sauce that I can't get enough of on anything: on lobster; on fish; or on salty, crunchy veggie medleys of okra, green beans and vibrant purple eggplants.

The sambal itself, like so many items on Malaysian menus, can't really claim its provenance in Malaysia. It's immensely popular there, but culinary histories trace it back to Indonesia before it became a staple of Malaysian dishes. And that's what makes Malaysian food — and Mamak's unique blends in particular — so interesting. It's the original fusion cuisine.
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Since the first Banana Leaf opened in 2009, Malaysian food has experienced something of a boom in Houston. There are now at least ten Malaysian joints across town (though primarily in Chinatown), with whispers of more to come. And why not? The spicy but not overwhelmingly hot food is ideally suited to our warm climate, and as Houstonians seek more pan-Asian flair in their food (kimchi tacos, anyone?), Malaysian cuisine seems to hit all the right notes, from the warm, chewy roti to the curry sauce and the piquant fresh seafood.

The recipes, of course, come from across Asia, but the food comes from a large kitchen overlooking the dining room through broad glass windows where men fling roti dough spinning into the air like it's a pizza, and woks full of meat and green lemongrass ignite into orange and blue flames with a splash of oil. The cooks are happy to perform for viewers — in between taking breaks to enjoy their own bowls of stir-fry, of course — and they do so with the aplomb of a reality-TV chef. They're making the same kind of food they grew up eating and made for themselves and their families for years. And now, suddenly, in Houston, with the influx of Malaysian cuisine breeding a greater interest in the culture itself, they're happy to have an audience.

kaitlin.steinberg@houstonpress.com

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