In 1997, Sam and Jessy Yoo, in a short-lived partnership with another couple, opened the New Hong Kong Malaysian Restaurant. There, in the crook of a cramped strip mall in Seattle's Little Saigon, the cuisine of China, India and Thailand informed a lengthy Malaysian menu. Once solely in the hands of the Yoos, what would become the city's worst "best-kept secret" was renamed, and Malay Satay Hut was born.
For those who considered it the epitome of intriguing ethnic eats hereabouts — and we are legion — the news, late last year, that Malay Satay Hut was destroyed by fire, was sad news indeed. While the original is still undergoing resuscitative efforts, its big new Overlake "twin" is up and running, giving fanatics and novices alike reason to report to Redmond to sip sweet, frothy avocado shakes and get a fascinating fix on some fabulous food.
If overseeing one busy show while attempting to reestablish another is making Sam Yoo short of breath, he's certainly not showing it; you'll find him on the job with a cellphone in one hand and a stack of photo-filled menus in the other. Now serving as what might be called "executive chef," he greets familiar faces and practices his considerable language skills with patrons whose visages reflect the varied geographic influences of Malaysia's melting-pot cuisine.
Where Seattle's "Hut" was funky and utilitarian, Redmond's strip-mall version offers a big dose of contrived kitsch. With its bamboo tiki-lounge design, lava lamps and a lofty ceiling, its greatest physical attribute is space. And that's a good thing, because this food is as addictive as it is inexpensive — and the joint's already swamped.
Faced with more than 100 items, it's hard to decide where to start, though nearly everyone begins with an order (or two) of roti canai ($2.50). Griddled to greatness, these flaky folds of slightly sweet, Indian-style flatbread come with a kicky curry sauce. Beef or chicken satays ($6.75) are carefully grilled, retaining the flavors of fresh lemongrass and ginger that perfume their magic marinade. The baby oyster omelet ($7.25), a broad flat multilayering of egg and oysters, was a delicate surprise. As was the scallion threaded through crispy pork intestines ($6.25), the crackling skin and translucent innards reminiscent of the fatty end of Chinese-style roast duck.
Asam laksa, Penang-style hot and sour noodle soup ($5.50), gets its intense heat from chilies and its "sour" from an infusion of tamarind. The pulp of the tamarind pod also adds its sweet-and-sour imprint to whole fish (market price) pulled live from the tank. Tilapia with tamarind ($17.95) was quickly fried and served — head and fin intact — with red onion, chunks of tomato and okra. Those who might find this bony specimen too unwieldy (or the curry fish-head in clay pot too "authentic") may opt for fish fillets or such easy-to-appreciate signature seafood dishes as mango shrimp artfully arranged in a split-mango "bowl" ($11.95).
Belachan — fermented shrimp dried and pounded into a pungent paste — lends its distinctive flavoring to fiery, garlicky sambal squid ($8.95). It's also the "secret" ingredient in kang kung belachan ($9.95), the leafy green water-spinach that isn't really spinach but would shiver Popeye's timbers nevertheless.
Penang chow kueh teow ($6.75), a dry-fried toss of shrimp, squid, chicken, bean sprouts and wide rice noodles, pays respect to two familiar dishes: phad Thai and Chinese chow fun. Singapore rice noodles ($6.75), whose fine strands play hide-and-seek with shrimp and sweet Chinese sausage, are a far cry from the bright-orange curry-powder-infused version often sampled elsewhere.
My favorite curry — made with chunks of lamb suffused with a dark aromatic paste made of ground spices, fresh ginger, garlic and tomato — comes from the home kitchen of my favorite Sri Lankan cook. When we shared a meal with our families at Malay Satay Hut, one and all agreed: Sam Yoo's version ($9.95) is almost as good.
Asi batu champor ($2.75), the shaved-iced concoction listed as "ABC ice kachang" — is the most unusual dessert you'll ever try, though chances are it will strike a familiar chord. Flavored with two syrups (one tastes exactly like Bit-O-Honey), it features such buried treasures as kidney beans, corn kernels and gelatin squares — making this delicious oddity a sweet, savory cross between Hawaiian shave ice and minestrone. And like everything else eaten here, it made me pine less for my beloved Malay Satay Hut in Seattle.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or email@example.com.