As I looked around the parking lot of the 99 Ranch-anchored plaza in Anaheim, I realized I was surrounded by the most diverse collection of Asian eateries in Orange County. The cartoon mascot of the Filipino chain Jollibee was facing Euclid Street, but behind that was the turo-turo joint Kapit Bahay, a handful of Chinese restaurants, a tea house, a Thai joint, a Japanese shabu shabu, a Lee’s Sandwiches and a pho place. But the plaza’s most charming and important addition is Seasons Kitchen USA, a restaurant that serves a cuisine that Orange County hasn’t had much of—Malaysian.
Specifically, Seasons Kitchen is a Chinese Malaysian food specialist, which means there are a lot of noodles, char siu pork, crisp-roasted pork belly and Hainan-style chicken. And at first glance, I thought it was a corporate outfit. There were professional-looking photos of the food on the walls. The to-go containers were branded, and the cashiers wore uniforms and nametags. But then I looked closer and saw the unmistakable characteristics of a lovingly cultivated mom-and-pop peeking through: There’s a blackboard of specials written by someone’s hand, free hot tea and a few random packaged food products that weren’t necessarily Malaysian on the counter. But the most telling of all was the sign outside that offered free ukulele lessons on Tuesday nights.
Owner and UC Irvine alum Khim Teoh—who also teaches at the Academy of Music for the Blind, a nonprofit in Whittier—gives the lessons. Even if you don’t come to learn how to strum a tiny guitar, it’s likely you’ll personally interact with Ms. Teoh. She’s a warm host and a sweet, doting presence, engaging in conversation with every customer in her restaurant. Meanwhile, behind the swinging doors of the kitchen, her husband, Soon Teoh, does the cooking.
His is a menu that focuses primarily on pork and poultry: a char siu that’s just about the closest thing you can get to pork candy; a roasted pork belly with crunchy skin that rivals the noisiest chicharrón; and legs of chicken prepared two ways, either roasted to a mahogany burnish or steamed Hainan-style. These four choices are paired with rice or egg noodles served in either soup or, best of all, tossed in a flavorful dressing of oil, soy sauce and voodoo.
The oiled noodles were wonderful and a rarity in Orange County since Warung Pojok—an Indonesian hole-in-the-wall that used to serve a similar dish in Garden Grove—folded about a year ago. Seasons Kitchen’s rendition more than fills that void, as well as the one for nasi lemak when Old Malaya Grill suddenly closed in Huntington Beach. Though Mr. Teoh’s nasi lemak isn’t the only one to be found in Orange County right now (Belacan Grill in Tustin also serves it), it’s easily the best.
On the center of the plate was the nasi itself, fragrant rice enriched with coconut cream and pandan. The rice can be a satisfying meal on its own, but the satellites of sides completed it as though pieces of a puzzle. There were the required components of ikan bilis (fried anchovies with peanuts), slices of cucumber, tomato, hard-boiled eggs and a homemade sambal that tasted as if it must have come from a secret family recipe. Also included was the welcome embellishment of a potato-and-chicken curry.
Because of all these reasons and because it’s actually a chef’s special that may or may not be offered in perpetuity, the nasi lemak is the one dish you need to eat right now above all else. Also currently on special is the satay appetizer, which, like the nasi lemak, was more Malaysian than Chinese. It came with a peanut dipping sauce about a thousand times more complex than what’s served at Thai restaurants.
There were other uniquely Malaysian specialties, too. The bak kut teh was a soup that had whiffs of Chinese medicinal herbs, chewy meatballs, tender pork riblets, hard-boiled egg, mushrooms and tofu that I ate in concert with rice and dabbed with a special soy-chile dipping sauce. And the char kwey teow—flat rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese sausage, shrimp and egg—tasted best when I opted for the hottest level available.
For dessert, I really enjoyed the roti slathered with pandan and peanuts. But if you’re here on the weekends, be on the lookout for the boxes of homemade Malaysian treats that consist of a sampling of kuih lapis, ondeh ondeh and seri muka—all colorful, bite-sized treats patiently made from glutinous rice, tapioca and other subtropical flavors only Indonesians, Malaysians and Singaporeans are usually privy to. They’re all wonderfully delicate and almost as sweet as Ms. Teoh herself.
Seasons Kitchen USA, 641 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 608-1375; www.seasonskitchenusa.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $16-$25. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.