As an ancient crossroads for the world’s spice trade and a rich source of tin and rubber, Malaysia has drawn waves of immigrants over the centuries, and all of them have left a mark on the country’s cuisine. South Indian-influenced curries, Chinese-inspired noodle dishes, Thai and Indonesian flourishes, and European legacies—yeasted breads, sweets, and milky tea—have coalesced into a national cuisine that offers tastes for virtually everyone. Malaysian cuisine is relatively untapped in Los Angeles, but these restaurants are one way to make its acquaintance.
Belacan Grill | Redondo Beach
Chef Kean Tan’s seafood soup, wild serai shrimp, and rojak fruit salad balance notes of lemongrass and chili with belacan, a salty preserved shrimp seasoning common in Malaysian cooking. The accent also flavors the house specialty, crab that is selected from a tank and then deep fried by the kitchen. Tofu is served Chinese hakka style, stuffed with poached shrimp, or as a satay filled with peanut-sauced vegetables. Don’t miss ice kacang, rose-syrup-drenched shaved ice, for dessert. The casually elegant room has a full bar. » 2701 190th St., Redondo Beach, 310-370-1831.
Little Malaysia | El Monte
This family-run spot specializes in Nonya cuisine, the Chinese-Malay hybrid whose best ambassador may be curry laksa, a coconut-enriched rice-noodle soup. On weekends groups crowd in for pork-stuffed fish balls, called hok chow, in soup; Penang harlok shrimp doused with chili; Nonya fried rice; and house-made drinks like iced barley with lime juice. » 3944 N. Peck Rd., Ste. 8, El Monte, 626-401-3188.
Penang | West Covina
This plaza café turns out Indian griddle breads and scalding Indo-Malay rendangs—long-simmered chicken, lamb, or beef cooked in a thick coconut cream infused with massive quantities of curry spices. Noodle dishes and rice plates are best for single diners, while specials such as spicy Thai sauce shrimp and stir-fried eggplant with belacan are more suitable for groups. » Hong Kong Plaza, 971 S. Glendora Ave., West Covina, 626-338-6138.
Tropika | Tustin
Describing itself as Malay-Thai fusion, this restaurant with a touch of tropical-outpost opulence and a full bar offers a handful of modern Thai-style dishes. For the most part the fusion lies in the kitchen’s beautiful Malay classics—rendangs, rotis, belacan prawns, and curry laksa are served along with a long list of vegetarian items that include char kueh teow, stir-fried flat rice noodles, and kang kung, garlic-laden freshwater spinach. » 17460 E. 17th St., Tustin, 714-505-9908.
Photograph Edmund Barr