The coconut jumbo prawns at Mamak Malaysian in Chinatown’s Dun Huang Plaza is the “don’t miss” entrée at this stylishly decorated and spacious restaurant. Eight enormous shrimp are perfectly fried and coated with aromatic toasted coconut, then arranged in a crown around a mound of fried noodles. The dish smells like a cookie, or maybe a Zagnut candy bar; the juicy shrimp and the crispy coating taste amazing together. Mamak is also popular for its noodle dishes, salads, and exotic appetizers.
Malaysian food, while not as prominent here as other Asian cuisines, is extremely popular among Vietnamese Americans, Chinese Americans, and just about anybody who gives it a try. The natural “Asian fusion” of the Malaysian peninsula is a result of its location on the Strait of Malacca—the express route from India to China. Every culture that sailed through the strait seems to have left behind a few favorite dishes.
Mamak’s most popular appetizer, roti canai, comes from the Indian tradition: a folded round of hot, elastic flatbread is served with a bowl of curry and potatoes on the side. A lunch companion tried the variation called roti telur, or roti with eggs, which turned out to be a Malaysian breakfast taco: two pieces of hot flatbread stuffed with scrambled eggs, green onions, and red peppers. The more elaborate roti murtabak adds minced beef to the egg mixture.
The mixed satay appetizer comes with two beef, two chicken, and two tofu spears seasoned with a rich spice mix, then grilled and served with spicy peanut sauce. Satay is commonly thought of as a Thai dish, but it’s actually an adaptation of the kebab, introduced to Malaysia by Arab spice merchants. Malaysian satays are made with thicker cuts of steak and chicken thigh meat instead of the thin strips featured in the Thai version.
Chinese-Malaysian dishes on the Mamak menu include the sensational stir-fried flat noodles tossed with shrimp, calamari, and bean sprouts, and spiced with chile paste. Noodles and noodle soups, by the way, are the most extensive part of the Mamak menu—other choices include Cantonese flat noodles, chewy Hokkien round noodles, and Singapore rice noodles. Noodle soups include Thai-style tom yum mee and the famous fish head soup of Singapore.
Mamak is BYOB with a $10 corkage fee, and you can always get beer to-go at Cafe Kubo a few doors down if need be. Items to avoid at Mamak include the dry, overcooked beef rendang, the lackluster gado gado and achat salads, and the bland mixed seafood flat noodle soup. Get the Malaysian classic breakfast nasi lemakif you must, but if you end up wondering why Malaysians are so fond of eating this combo of coconut rice and anchovies first thing in the morning, then join the club.