This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

When I die—of something gastrointestinal, I bet—Tropika will likely be one of the fanciest places I ever dined. It's a hole-in-the-wall in terms of location only. It's not even in a strip mall, but behind one. Inside, it's another world altogether: a large venue with lighting design by God (soft, warm, flattering), wood paneling and a fully stocked bar. It's worthy of a spread in Dwell, hip enough for The LAB—and also the county's only restaurant specializing in Malaysian, a sweet-scorching cuisine produced by the collision of Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Thai traditions.

Your introduction to Malaysian might reasonably begin with roti canai, a wheat flatbread that's equal parts tortilla and naan. Tear up and dunk the roti in a bowl of red curry—but do so with caution: the serving size is small but potent, a spicy, milky broth with a modest provision of potatoes and a solitary, buttery chicken chunk. Continue with a plate of nasi lemak—rice steamed in coconut milk and paired with chicken deep-fried in that amazing red curry sauce, fried anchovies with the pungent smell of sambal (chile paste coupled with fermented shrimp paste) and a curious side of two boiled egg halves with cucumbers. Sweet, spicy, bitter, salty—few dishes produce such intense flashes of flavor as nasi lemak.

Nasi lemak and roti canai are great starting points on Tropika's vast menu. The pandan chicken wing, for instance—deep-fried wings wrapped in a pandan leaf—combines the fried goodness of hen with the grassy flavor of the pandan leaf. Mango squid salad is what all meat-based salads should strive for—a sweet, spicy, chewy mess of barbecued squid and moist mango. A bowl of asam laksa—rice noodle soup with the wildly contrasting flavors of pineapples, onions, lemon grass and hot-and-sour sauce—is cappuccino in a broth.

But if you're limited to just one dish, try Tropika's rendang meats, a dish native to Indonesia—but who's paying attention? Pick beef, lamb or chicken—doesn't matter—and the Tropika folks cut them into cubes, then braise the meats in a sauce with about a dozen spices until the sauce seeps into the cubes and evaporates, leaving a dry, scorching heat that tastes like the Mojave—if the Mojave were hot and redolent of cumin, coriander and ginger. And chicken, too.

Spice, spice and spice—everything in Malaysia has spice, it seems. Mitigate that with a lychee drink, water spiked with the super-sweet, refreshing fruit. And if you're still sweaty, order any of their shaved ices. I like the hilariously named bobo cha cha, sweet potato and yam mashed together with ice, the perfect Thanksgiving aperitif.

TROPIKA, 17460 E. 17TH. ST., TUSTIN, (714) 505-9908; WWW.TROPIKA.COM.

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