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Mystery Bean

THIS HOLE-IN-THE-WALL LIFE

"You can't have that!" exclaimed the waiter at KL MALAYSIAN when I asked for the sambal petai. The menu described the dish as "petai beans in sweet spicy chili, tamarind, onion sauce served with rice." Seemed tasty enough. I asked for it again.

"Have you ever had it?" he replied in an exasperated tone. I shook my head as I explained I like to try new food. He frowned slightly and went to the kitchen. He returned. "We don't have it today," he said.

I didn't believe the waiter but didn't want to belabor the point, so I ordered other items from the county's second Malaysian restaurant. It used to be a Vietnamese-Chinese eatery, and the waiters will still hand you the old menu unless you specifically ask for the Malaysian side. While the Chinese and Vietnamese meals are fine, it's the Malaysian cuisine that should bring in the crowds.

KL's Malaysian offerings aren't much—just one page, front and back, with items scratched out and multiple misspellings. But the cooks nevertheless deliver on one of the world's best cuisines, a peninsular blend of Indian and Chinese traditions. Start with some appetizers—chicken wings fried in a curry batter, fiery satays, or roti canai, a bowl of fragrant curry accompanied by pieces of Indian flatbread to dip for moist, spicy bliss. Move on to a soup—best is the asam laksa. Rarely will you find such wildly varying flavors in one spoonful of broth; I detected ginger, cucumber, pineapple, mint leaves, heat, sweet and the wheaty comfort of noodles.

No worries about all the other items—the descriptions are straightforward. But beware: all the dishes are intensely flavored, with multiple ingredients battling for primacy inside your mouth. Beef rendang is one of the best ways to prepare meat: braised, with roasted coconut and chile, simultaneously sweet and subtly hellish. The curries are milder than their Indian or Thai cousins but also envelop more unique meats—squid, for instance, or a peppery crab curry. Chicken rice, on the other hand, can win them over in Iowa: rice steamed with chicken broth, then topped with steamed chicken.

And about that sambal petai: I finally convinced someone to let me order it the second time I visited. Its English name is stink bean, and the avocado-colored veggie tastes like trash-bag juice. Totally an acquired taste. Lesson of the week: if an ethnic waiter tries to steer you away from an entrťe, trust him more often than not.

KL MALAYSIAN, 4421 W. FIRST ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 775-1134.

 
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