The first time I had Malaysian food was in Hong Kong, the city of a million Chow destinations. I was wandering around Central, trying to shake the jet lag, and went to go have a cup of tea. I sat down across from a man from Kuala Lumpur who struck up a conversation.
When he found out I had never had Malaysian food, and that contrary to the Asian view of fat white Americans, I was not afraid of bold flavours, he got very excited and said he absolutely had to take me to lunch at a Malaysian restaurant. Not having anything else in particular to do, I assented. Off we went to Wanchai, past the houses of ill repute, down stairs, through a building, and through a series of alleys, to a basement room filled with men chattering in a language I didn't know. The part of me that has been to Russia was absolutely beside myself for my stupidity.
But instead, my new friend ("Ken") barked a staccato litany to a woman behind a counter. Instantly, crackly bread and curry sauce appeared; in short order, some kind of greens that stank to high heaven, and what can only be described as Hell in a bowl, a roiling orange and red boiling-hot broth that swirled and steamed around a pile of... stuff. Beer appeared. I washed my hands at the basin as indicated, grabbed chopsticks and a spoon and dug in.
Love. Unadulterated love. I've never been assaulted by flavours like I was in that unregulated, tenement-bulb-lit basement room in some God-awful alley in Hong Kong that I will never in my life be able to find again.
I was thinking about that today, because a friend of mine, who is a son of a you-know-exactly-what, texted me today. "Am in Singapore. Eating laksa. And you are not. Ha ha you poor bastard."
I knew I had to try to find Malaysian food. I was not, however, up for a trip to find out if the Redondo Beach doyenne of Malaysian food, Belacan Grill, is any good. K L Restaurant, which used to turn out a mean beef rendang, is gone and besides I really don't want to be in that part of Santa Ana at night.
So I went to Tropika, which is in the same plaza as Zov's Bistro, on 17th just barely east of the 55. First I had to find it, which is no mean feat -- that plaza is oddly set up and the restaurant is in the back corner (easiest to find if, upon getting on 17th headed inland, you turn right on Yorba and left on Vandenberg, then left into the plaza).
I ordered the meal I'd had in the Malaysian restaurant in Hong Kong, the one that had blown my socks off in the grimy back streets. Roti prata, curry laksa, belacan kang kong, and coconut rice. A lot of food given that I was alone but I needed all the buttons hit.
Roti prata came out -- part thick and chewy, part paper-thin and crackly, with a bowl of thin orange curry sauce. I dug in -- the roti was tasty if a little greasy, but the curry sauce helped mask the greasiness. It wasn't the most flavourful curry sauce in the world, but it provided a much-needed hit of spice and saltiness, since roti prata is not salted.
Next came the laksa. Laksa literally means what our British friends would call "all-sorts". I'm not joking when I said it is supposed to be Hell in a bowl. Thin noodles (either laksa noodles, which are like banh hoi, or mee hoon, which are thicker) are topped with bean sprouts, chicken, fish cake, prawns, fried tofu and a hard-boiled egg, and then this unbelievably fiery broth made principally of chilies, ginger and coconut milk is poured on top. The whole thing is garnished with fried shallots, prawn-flavoured oil, green onions, lime and rau ram (the Vietnamese mint-coriander herb that is so prevalent in laksa that it is sometimes sold as "laksa leaf").
Well, Tropika's version had mee hoon, white-meat boneless chicken, a few bean sprouts, laksa leaf and a very mild red coconut-based curry. No stuff. No egg, which lends an inimitable richness to the broth. Few bean sprouts. No fish cake, which is my favourite bit. No tofu at all. While it was quite tasty -- that chicken was absolutely perfectly cooked, tender and soft and juicy -- it was not the laksa experience I was hoping for. I don't want you to think it wasn't delicious -- it was -- but Malaysian food, when I've had it even here in the US, really turns the flavour dial up to 11. Malaysian food is NOT about subtle flavours; it's more about making your paradigm shift without a clutch. This was maybe a 7 or an 8.
Next came the belacan kang kong. You talk about unsubtle flavours. Kang kong is what the Cantonese call ong choy and we call morning glories or water spinach. It's a pointy-leaf spinach with a hollow stem so it floats in water. Belacan is... well, frankly, it's made from fermented ground shrimp. It smells absolutely overpowering, worse -- much worse -- than fish sauce. However, it imparts an absolutely unmistakable and delicious flavour to whatever is cooked with it. The smell was, as promised, eyewatering. The taste, too -- very very overpowering. What you need to do, though, is eat it with the coconut rice. I have it on good authority (Ken, and the waiter at Tropika) that belacan kang kong is meant to be eaten with rice. The rice just cuts through the belacan and imparts this savoury fragrance to the whole thing. It was delicious; I polished off the whole thing. I even ordered a bowl of the coconut rice to go so that I can eat it tonight with fried bananas.
I'd read several reviews that said the service was abrupt. They're all wrong. The tall bespectacled guy who served me was not making chitchat, but a young woman came over whilst I was eating and asked if she could take my picture for their Facebook site. Sure, um, whatever. They were polite enough. Not fawningly friendly, and not that awful fake customer-service cheerfulness that's drummed into chain restaurant employees. ("Welcome to P.F. Gump's Red Olive Garden and Cheesecake, Chili and Crab Shack, home of the two hour wait, my name is Tiffany, we're so happy to see you here!")
Prices are quite reasonable -- my dinner was $26 before tip, which included a bottle of Tsingtao.
It was good. It just wasn't the knock-your-socks-off experience I was hoping for. I'll have to try the place elmomonster mentioned in Bellflower, or suck it up and go to Redondo Beach and see if Belacan Grill lives up to the hype.
17460 E 17th St, Tustin, CA