Low End Theory and Limster went to Banana Island yesterday (Singapore-Malaysian restaurant, Westlake Shopping Centre, John Daly @ Lake Merced in Daly City). One might think from reading this review that they had the worst meal of their lives. If these ramblings seem hypercritical, put it down to these factors:
1) Homesickness. Both chowhounds grew up eating Singapore and Malaysian food.
2) The rare thrill of being on the Internet and knowing what one is talking about (heresy!).
3) A firm conviction that there is only ONE RIGHT WAY to make dishes so canonical that entire cities argue over which tiny stall cooks the ideal version. Banana Garden, Singapore and Malaysian Restaurant, the overpriced Straits Café and Banana Island are OK in terms of absolute quality but lack crucial authentic touches.
Bak Kut Teh. Limster dragged himself off his sickbed to the Muni stop and trudged a long way to the restaurant from the BART station. Too bad this Chinese herbal pork stew didn't have its usual restorative properties. Complaints: should only include pork ribs, not belly pork; flavour is too heavy on the star anise and cloves, without the mysterious Chinese herbs that make the dish unique. Not the real thing.
Oyster Omelette. Low End Theory liked the soft oysters and overall flavour of this dish OK. Limster was scandalized by the way the omelet had been folded ("blatant Americanization") rather than allowed to gel in a single layer. Furthermore, the critical tapioca starch had been omitted, and the texture was inauthentic.
Chow Kueh Teow. This pan-fried noodle dish belongs in Low End Theory's pantheon of favourite hawker foods along with Curry Laksa (not on the menu at Banana Island!), Hainanese Chicken Rice and Nasi Lemak. Accordingly, the use of skinny pad thai noodles instead of the widely available fat hor fun was his worst faux pas of the meal. He took one look and thought "You have just wasted your money". Other problems: no Chinese sausage; not made with lard (the crispy fried bits are the essence of good kueh teow); not enough chilli; portion too small like everything we ordered. Very similar to the mediocre version at Banana Garden, which if it isn't a sister restaurant might as well be.
Roti Kaya. A pancake filled with the coconutty custard jam commonly made at home in Malaysia and Singapore. Overly sweet, this version was drenched in butter - for once, a bad thing - and lacked sufficient kaya. The only plus was that we were spared the canned whipped cream.
Rants aside, here are Low End Theory's recs for makan the best of a bad situation (makan = chow in Malay). Order the roti canai at Banana Garden/Island, it's very good. The mee goreng is also OK, this dish can be made differently by Chinese and Indian chefs and is more resistant to tinkering. Explore the family-style dishes, these are probably better overall than unsuccessful shots at hawker fare. Beef rendang and kang kong belacan are starting points. Ask for some sambal belacan (chilli sauce mixed with the 1000x shrimp paste that is diagnostic of Singapore and Malaysian fare), it will improve most dishes.
It's heartbreaking for Limster and Low End Theory that the Singapore/Malaysian population in the Bay Area is too small to support even one quality restaurant making the tastiest of all cuisines. Expatriates in Perth, Sydney, Auckland, Boston, Chicago, and New York can feast on superb curry laksa. Why can't we?