Double Happiness at Banana Leaf
Get a double dose of Banana Leaf in our slideshow.
Comedian Lewis Black once spoke about finding the "end of the universe" in Houston, when he stumbled across the intersection of West Gray and Shepherd, where two Starbucks sit directly across the street from one another. "I looked back and forth," he said, "thinking the sun was playing tricks with my eyes." Both, he noted, were equally busy.
I don't know what Black would make of Chinatown, but I have a feeling that he might rethink his idea of Houston as the end of the universe. Because in our Chinatown, a second location of Banana Leaf has been built directly across Bellaire Boulevard from the original in Dun Huang Plaza. Banana Leaf II is four times the size, occupying an endcap in the Sterling Shopping Center that was once Chinese Sichuan Cuisine. And like the first Banana Leaf — which is still open, and still doing the same voluminous business as always — Banana Leaf II is always busy.
Not long after opening in 2008, the original location became notorious for its long wait times, as well as for its cheerfully low-key wait system: You wrote your own name down on a clipboard with a pencil on a string, then set up camp out front. If you were lucky, there were a few stray chairs. Otherwise, you'd sit patiently sweating on the concrete like a kid at summer camp waiting for a go at the archery range.
The new location still has a wait in the evenings — a recent Saturday night saw my date and me waiting for a good 30 minutes — but a spiffier area in which to do your waiting, complete with bucolic waterfall and flat-screen TV, which was curiously showing a women's softball game on my last visit. The entire interior, in fact, has been given a beautiful face-lift that's virtually erased all traces of the old, roughshod Chinese Sichuan Cuisine.
Here now are handsome mahogany booths covered with palapas and a green wallpaper that approximates the tropical look of bamboo. There are private rooms now — something the first Banana Leaf didn't dream of having — and even a cozy bar, although Banana Leaf still encourages its patrons to indulge in its same generous BYOB policy (there's no corkage fee). And because both the dining room and kitchen are larger, the menu is, too.
The menu at the original was already massive enough, but the one at Banana Leaf II folds in and over on itself, with seemingly no back or front, and features new favorites like fried shrimp cakes and Assam-style stingray served in a pot the size of a cauldron. But the old standbys like roti canai haven't gone anywhere and, if anything, they're actually better at Banana Leaf II.
One of the best things about dining at Banana Leaf, or any Malaysian or Singaporean restaurant, for that matter, is how the menu bounces around from culture to culture along the way. You'll find Indian curries, Thai soups, Indonesian flatbreads, Chinese stir-fry dishes, Vietnamese sauces and everything in between, thanks to the cross-cultural pollination that's practiced in both Malaysia and Singapore.
And because all of these ethnic influences have found their way into Malaysian cuisine for years, it's only natural to order Thai-style soft-shell crab alongside Assam-style curried fish. In this regard, Banana Leaf makes an excellent destination for those who have picky eaters as friends: You can careen adventurously into dishes of deep-fried pork intestines and tom yum fish head casserole, while your more staid dining companions can stick with pad thai or shrimp fried rice.
Luckily, Banana Leaf does both ends of that spectrum equally well. Basic chow fun is elevated with a swoop of dexterously applied smokiness from the woks and the toothsomeness of the broad, flat rice noodles, which drape languidly over your chopsticks and soak up the flavors of sea-sweet shrimp and fatty barbecued pork. Meanwhile, the tender white flesh of the stingray is given a sour punch with an Assam-style laksa curry that fascinates with a depth of flavor not often found in Western soups: Tamarind and pineapple lend a sweetness that's undercut with bracing strains of dusky shrimp paste, bright ginger and strident garlic.
Pattaya-style soft-shell crabs are battered and fried until puffy — and I've yet to find a mealy, frozen crab here — then garnished with a merry confetti of mango, bell peppers, onions and cilantro in a barely sweet sauce that's tempered with a kick of red pepper. Singapore-style rice noodles have that same smoky allure from the wok, but come in a thick tangle that's fun to unwind with your fingers, licking off the sour-sweet sauce as you work.
A few old favorites like the taro fried shrimp aren't quite up to par — the shrimp on my last visit was over-battered and over-fried, in what tasted like dirty oil (although, to be fair, this was at the very end of the night). But on another visit, I tried the fried shrimp cakes instead and was delighted to find delicate rounds of compressed shrimp and bread crumbs served under a salty-sweet white sauce that had the same briny sweetness of uni. Even the roti canai comes out faster and hotter than before, but with the same cheeky tug to the flatbread and nutty richness in the curry sauce that made it so irresistible at the original Banana Leaf.
Out of the entire menu so far, it's the vegetable achat that I've become most attached to. Dusted with peanuts and sesame seeds, the Malaysian-style pickled vegetables are crisp, cool and effortlessly bright with bursts of cider vinegar and turmeric, lemongrass and ginger. The carrots, cabbage and long beans in the mix still retain their own inherent vegetal sweetness, and never verge on too pickled, too tart, as I've seen in many high-end restaurants that are attempting to pickle their own vegetables these days. The beguilingly cool achat is a must with every order, the perfect accompaniment to a hot meal or simply a hot day in Houston.
When I reviewed the original Banana Leaf in the summer of 2009, I asked why there wasn't more Malaysian food in Houston. The food — like that achat — is ideally suited to both our warm climate and our pan-Asian palates. With the opening of this second location in Chinatown and the steady crowds packing into both, it looks as though Malaysian food might finally be on the rise here. In fact, just last week I spotted a brand-new banner in the Dun Huang shopping center for another new Malaysian restaurant — directly across the parking lot from Banana Leaf.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.