Malaysian Food Is Worth the Trip to Chinatown, and Mamak Malaysian has Some of the Best
You really can't go wrong with anything in Dun Huang Plaza.
According to the Web site, there are 62 businesses currently operating out of Dun Huang Plaza on Bellaire. There are seven different types of clinics, two reflexologists, a few bakeries, a large Chinese import store, three travel agents, one violin teacher, nearly a dozen snow ice shops and the two best Malaysian restaurants in Houston staring back at each other across the perpetually full parking lot.
Banana Leaf (the original one; there are now two in Houston) occupies a small space toward the back of the shopping center. It's a small, shotgun-style space where the dinner wait can reach an hour or more for the exotic amalgamation of Asian cuisines. From a table inside Banana Leaf, you can see Dun Huang Plaza's other Malaysian restaurant, Mamak Malaysian, which fills a large, rounded corner of the shopping center, dwarfing the other restaurants nearby.
When Mamak first opened, in July 2012, people wondered if Chinatown needed another Malaysian joint, let alone one right across the street from everyone's favorite, Banana Leaf. From the moment Mamak announced its presence, people compared it to its neighbor (which reportedly loaned Mamak its chef to start the place), and factions soon formed. There are die-hard Banana Leaf fans, and there are those who swear by the food at Mamak. I'm not here to take a side. I'm here to tell you that the Malaysian food in general is worth a trip to Chinatown, and the food at Mamak is some of the best.
Malaysian cuisine is an interesting synthesis of traditional foods from the country's many neighbors. There's a large Indian influence, as seen in the curries, lentils, potatoes and roti, a type of flatbread. Thai food also comes into play, with an abundance of ginger, lemongrass, and coconut-milk curries and soups. Then there are the Chinese stir-fries, vermicelli noodles and dumplings. And, of course, Malaysia has created its own unique dishes, including nasi lemak, which is considered the country's national dish.
At Mamak, the nasi lemak is a great way to dive headfirst into the cuisine, because it gives you a little taste of everything. In Malaysia, it's a traditional breakfast dish, but here in the U.S. — where we aren't accustomed to eating things like anchovies and pickles first thing in the morning — it's more of a lunch or dinner item.
Here they do nasi lemak the Malaysian-Indian way, with white rice soaked in coconut cream surrounded by small offerings of other items, such as pickled vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, sliced cucumbers, curried chicken, raw peanuts and tiny whole anchovies in chile paste. The idea is to scoop up a little bit of everything with each bite and let the unique and alluring flavors dance across your palate. When I was at last able to gather each individual component in my chopsticks and taste them simultaneously, it was indeed a perfect cross-section of Malaysian food: sweet, spicy, vinegary and meaty, with the hint of shrimp paste that informs nearly every aspect of the south Asian menu.
When dining at a new restaurant or eating a type of food I'm not accustomed to, I try to bring experts along. In the case of Mamak, I brought two friends who eat there regularly and have spent time in Malaysia, dining on the same authentic food. They knew exactly how to order the best dishes off the staggeringly inclusive menu.
"Here's what we're going to do," they said. "We're going to get two appetizers, four main dishes and some dessert. And then we're going to go get reflexology around the corner. Oh, and we brought wine."
This, apparently, is how you do Mamak. The place is BYOB and there's no corkage fee, so feel free to ask the servers to pour whatever you bring along with you. ( I recommend a bright, dry white — think Riesling or Gewürztraminer — to pair with the Asian spices.) And from there, you just start ordering.
What I discovered on my first trip is that it's best to order everything you want all at once, because the service at Mamak is questionable, at best. The staff of mostly young people who aren't all fluent in English is nice enough, but there doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason to the table assignments. Place an order with one server and another will bring it to you. Sometimes you'll have to order from two different servers to get what you want. Sometimes you'll have to flag them down and request that they take some empty dishes off the small table; if you don't, there will be no room for your new items.
Most of the tables at Mamak are small but can be folded out and made larger once the platters of whole fried fish or lobster or noodles start piling up. The abundance of small tables means Mamak can seat far more diners than its neighbor across the street — a fact that many reference when choosing Mamak over Banana Leaf. You still might have to wait for a table on a busy evening, but at least you can wait inside, where there's air-conditioning and the pleasant aroma of roti permeates the room.
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.
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.
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.
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