Cruise down Buford Highway, on the other hand, and take in the signs: Havana Sandwich Shop, Canton House, El Taco Veloz, Pho Bac. No guessing games required.
Then there are the nebulous names, like Asia Bistro. Pulling into the parking lot of the humdrum shopping center in which the restaurant is located, I have no idea what to expect. Fusion? I'm thinking waterfalls, shadowy lighting and feng-shui. The kitchen probably offers contrivances like miso-glazed steak or shrimp with roasted peppers, fried leeks and edamame in a fluorescent tamarind-achiote sauce.
I walk through Asia Bistro's door and enter what looks like the archetypal low-budget Chinese-American restaurant found in strip malls everywhere. Booths line one wall. The tables in the middle of the room have chairs with seats covered in bright red plastic. A mural with geisha-like women faces a vague diorama of Eastern topography. Kenny G's cloying riffs burrow into my eardrum.
It isn't until you glance over the menu that you understand a fusion of sorts is indeed at play: Chinese, Thai and Malaysian cuisines are all served here. When the owners first opened the restaurant nearly three months ago, the dishes were all scrambled together in a hodgepodge of shrimp with lobster sauce, masaman curry and beef rendang. They wised up in the last couple weeks and separated the choices into their respective categories.
As such, the heart behind the food becomes clearly exposed. Both the Chinese and Thai offerings typify the watered-down, Americanized versions available at umpteen joints around town. But the Malaysian? That's where the action is. Not only is that segment of the menu more intriguing solely because it's not as common in Atlanta, but the owners and main cook in the kitchen are also Malaysian. Focus your attentions accordingly.
Malaysia in itself is a multicultural amalgamation. The two regions of the country, divided by the South China Sea, incorporate elements of Indonesian, Thai, Northern Indian Muslim and Chinese cultures, with a smattering of British colonialism thrown in.
You taste this intense cultural commingling with the first bite of roti canai, the requisite appetizer in Malaysian restaurants. Rip off a chunk of browned, pleasantly greasy flatbread and swipe it through the murky curry with chunks of potatoes and chicken. Its fragrant but mild nature, less sweet than Thai curries but more coarse than Indian variations, jumpstarts the taste buds. It sets the stage for a meal of indistinctly familiar preparations with unfamiliar nuances.
As in all Asian restaurants, the best approach is to order a mishmash of dishes to balance out the zigzag of flavors and textures. The soft-spoken servers will help as best they can.
Newbies definitely want to try rendang, the famous dish of meat slowly cooked with a paste of chili, onion, lemongrass and a myriad of other ingredients in coconut milk until the meat and sauce are nearly indistinguishable. Flank steak is the typical meat used in rendang, but they upgrade to filet mignon here, perhaps unnecessarily. The beef is still a bit chewy, though not disagreeably so. I'm actually fonder of the version they make with lamb. Its gamier edge marries well with the elusive, rich sauce.
I would define none of the food as challenging, even though some of the seasonings used in Malaysian cuisine can be pungent to Western palates (I have a feeling the kitchen is pulling its punches for an American audience). Yes, the shrimp sauteed with sambal -- a condiment that counts fermented shrimp paste among its ingredients -- has a noticeably fishy edge, but it's still tame compared to other interpretations of sambal. And since some of the stir-frys are too meek, I'll take a bit of feistiness. Timid diners wanting to stick their pinky toe into this type of fare might select the Kelantan dry curry, a stir-fry of mushrooms, peppers, onions and choice of meat. It tastes like a dull Chinese stir-fry with just a sheen of aromatic curry. It lacks the virile backbone of fearless seasoning, as does the spicy lemongrass stir-fry, which proffered little of the promised kick.
Ah, but then I dig into the mee goreng. A tight jumble of soft stir-fried noodles mixed with ground papaya, peanuts, onion and garlic, this concoction offers the same primal satisfaction as mac-and-cheese. It has bite, it has a quiet but pronounced piquancy -- it has soul. Ditto the penang char kwey teow, a stir-fry that instead uses flat noodles that are tossed with shrimp and squid. Somebody's wielding a nice hot wok to give those noodles smoky depth.
I dabble in the Chinese and Thai offerings without much success. The Singapore-style rice noodles burnished yellow with curry isn't as slick with oil as others. A description labels the Thai special pineapple fried rice as a "must try," but the profusion of carrots, raisins and pineapple sullies my tongue with sweet. In other words? Dont try.
Yep, the Malaysian's the thing to stick with here. And like the steadfast neighborhood standby Asia Bistro presents itself to be, they deliver to the nearby Chamblee-Tucker residents. Perfect. I can certainly envision myself calling in for Malaysian face food on election night, snarfing mee goreng straight from its carryout container to keep my frazzled nerves at bay.
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