Living in Orange County, I've come to accept its dearth of Malaysian, Singaporean or Indonesian restaurants just as I've accepted that O.C. real estate prices are insane. Yes, it's yet another one of those annoying constants in life, like taxes and movies by the Wayans brothers; if I ever wanted to eat at a Malaysian, Singaporean, or Indonesian restaurant, I'll have to trudge out in traffic to L.A. County to get it.
Sure. Orange County's got Little Saigon, where a freighter's worth of cattle is tranformed into pho stock every day to feed the largest Vietnamese population outside of Saigon. And Thai food? It's everywhere in O.C. Even Irvine's got three joints hocking pad thai at my last count. But you'd better gas up if you ever get a hankering for nasi lemak, or soto ayam. The Southies of Southeast Asia are better represented at the Rose Parade than they are in Orange County.
Barely open for a month and a new neighbor for Zov's Bistro, Tropika in Tustin arrives to scratch the itch that people like me have been itching to scratch for years. It bills itself as a restaurant serving "Malaysian and Thai Cuisine" -- with the "Thai" part slapped on as insurance in case the typical Orange County dweller is too quick to ask: "What's Malaysian food?"
"Thai" provides a point of reference, you see -- somewhere familiar for us all to start from. And indeed, Pad Thai is available on the menu, but why on earth would you want that if you could've just gone to your corner Thai mom-and-pop? Tropika serves Malaysian food in Orange County -- revel in it!
We began with the starter of starters for any Malaysian meal; Roti Prata ($3.25), also known as roti canai. This dish was at every single table that night. At first glance, you'd think this simple flatbread was a crumpled-up dinner napkin, mottled with brown spots. But everyone who ordered it seemed to know better. Upon its arrival and without hesitation, my dining companions and I tore off large ragged sheets from this doughy membrane, ripping it apart like ravenous raptors, stopping only for a dunk in the bowl of red curry, made with chicken and potato.
Although roti hails from India, it is now as much a staple to the Malaysian table as it is to the cuisine of their Hindu neighbors to the northwest. Similar to naan, but stretched impossibly thin, the texture of roti is flour tortilla meets phyllo dough -- crisp and crackly at its periphery, paper-thin and chewy throughout. We used it to scoop up the thick, redolent flavors of the curry.
Another starter, called Honey Squid ( $7.95) was rigid and crunchy, not unlike Funyuns. The rings of the "baby squid" (their words, not mine) were interspersed among a few pieces of tentacle, deep fried and petrified in a state of suspended bliss. The sticky glaze of spicy honey gave the dish a sparkling and crystally sheen, like the crust of a Honeybaked Ham. The mild heat and candy sweetness of the sauce balanced the fishy flavor of the calamari.
The Baby Oyster Omelette ($7.95) was simply prepared. Although by now I was wondering about Tropika's fascination for pre-pubescent sea creatures, this dish was just as advertised -- dark morsels of oyster (yes, little baby ones), were cooked with beaten egg and garnished with cilantro sprigs. You'll see this dish at Thai restaurants too, but never at IHOP.
For Malaysian Seafood Hor Fun ($8.95), flat rice noodles were stir fried and sluiced with a velvety gravy made with cornstarch and egg whites. Entwined in the noodle ribbons were shrimp, squid, scallop, and crisp baby bok choy. Slurping was unavoidable, since the slippery noodles would escape our grasp if we had been more timid. The flavors here were subtle and nuanced, a primer for the boldness of the dishes to come.
The most expensive and spice-ladened dish of the night was a concoction called Rendang Beef ($12.95) -- a dish that is also held with high esteem in the Indonesian kitchen. Cubes of beef are braised in a brew of coconut milk, shallots, garlic, ginger, turmeric, coriander, and lemongrass. The pot simmers until the beef falls apart tender and the sauce is reduced into a brown paste which sticks to the meat like ants on a lollipop.
Tropika's rendition was good, with the spices as sharp as a hot blade. But Malaysian rendang has always been a bit too harsh for my born-in-Indonesia tongue. I prefer the Indonesian version, which is much sweeter and mellower. Malaysians will undoubtedly call me out on this, and I concede that O.C. beggars for Malay/Indo food can't be choosers. Regardless of my preference, we ate ours that night with satisfaction and gusto, accompanied by plenty of steamed white rice. Alternating bites of cucumber and wedges of raw red onion refreshed our palates.
The best dish of the night (the reason I seeked out Tropika in the first place) was the Nasi Lemak ($7.95). Nasi, is "rice" in both the Malaysian and Indonesian languages. Nasi lemak is the Malaysian name for rice cooked with coconut milk. Indonesians call their rendition, nasi gurih. Although I can't attest to the meaning of the word lemak, I can tell you that in Indonesian, the word gurih means "savory". And this rice was quite savory indeed. In fact, I could've eaten it plain, since it was perfumed with the aromatic scent of coconut and was richly infused with its flavor.
Tropika served the rice with four accompaniments, each worthy of being on the same plate with the nasi lemak. Its first mate was white meat chicken chunks, deep fried, served on the bone, and steeped in spicy red curry. The rest of the crew was led by fried anchovies and peanuts, rolling in sambal, which is chili paste made with the funky whispers of belacan (dried shrimp paste). Boiled egg and cool cucumbers flanked the rear, completing this perfect meal.
Yes, O.C.'s finally got a new Malaysian restaurant, complete with white linen and a full bar. Eat your hearts out L.A., while we eat out our stomachs.
Now if only someone can do something about those O.C. home prices.
17460 E. 17th St.
Tustin, CA 92780