28 December 2006

Finding Malaysia in LA

I pity any Malaysian restaurant I walk into because I have impossibly high standards for the food as I was raised on my grandmother's fine cooking that few public places can match even in Malaysia. So when a cousin whose grandmother's food is on par with mine said she'd been to a restaurant she thought good, I was intrigued and very curious to check it out myself—plans were made for a visit as soon as possible.

On what the Brits call Boxing Day, my cousin, C., and I set off to Little Malaysia in El Monte. I was licking my chops as she drove, more than eager to judge the restaurant worthy (or not) and wondering if I would still respect C. after the meal—her food reputation was hanging in the balance.

The menu was typical, serving all the Malaysian food standards—Satay, Rendang, Laska etc.... I wanted to try it all, but even with 3 people, C. brought her roommate, it was an ambitious plan. Instead, C. and I conferred and settled on 4 dishes: Char kway teow (fried rice noddles), Assam curry ikan pali (sour curry with skate), Kankung belacan or shrimp paste, and Hainanese chicken rice.

(Dishes below, starting top left, going clockwise)

The Char kway teow came out first and I was happy it didn't disappoint. It was nicely done, good enough to make me not regret my trip to El Monte. The rice noodles were appropriately scorched in a hot wok—the mark of good Char kway teow. Smokey charred flavor is essential in this noodle dish like macaroni-n-cheese needs to creamy.

I enjoyed the Assam curry ikan pali more as a novelty, because it was my first time eating skate. If there was such a thing as dark meat fish, skate would fall into that category. Its flesh was firm with a texture I would describe as slightly muscular, although not in anyway tough. As for the curry, I though it could use more assam; it wasn't sour enough for my palate and conversely too sweet. The Kankung was fresh and stir-fried well to bring out its vibrant green color, but I was expecting it with fermented shrimp paste, instead of the dried shrimp which I felt was a cop-out from an authenticity point of view.

The Hainanese chicken rice was a risk as both C. and I have family who can make this dish really well, and unfortunately the chance we took didn't pay off. The chicken was dry and over cooked; and while the rice had a good chicken essence, it lacked ginger to give it depth and additional flavor.

While not all the dishes I had at Little Malaysia were hits, the food was still worthy enough to warrant future visits for other entrées I didn't get to the first time around. And I need to thank C. for bring the place to my attention; her honor is still intact in my eyes, and palate.

Little Malaysia
3944 North Peck Rd., #8
El Monte, CA 91732
(626) 401-3188

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