Restaurant News & Reviews

Restaurant review: Melaka Kitchen offers a broad array of tastes; don’t miss the roti

Check out Melaka Kitchen authentic Malaysian cuisine

Melaka Kitchen authentic Malaysian cuisine is a new restaurant in Elk Grove
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Melaka Kitchen authentic Malaysian cuisine is a new restaurant in Elk Grove

The capital region’s food scene has long been rich in Thai and Vietnamese dining options, but other cuisines of southeast Asia are getting broader representation — a cause for celebration. Elk Grove newcomer Melaka Kitchen is the first I know of to focus on Malaysian cuisine.

That’s a boon to the growing Elk Grove dining scene, which has been drawing me south on 99 – yes, even at rush hour – more often. With Lao and Cambodian restaurants, some of the region’s best ramen, now Malaysian, and more, the suburb to the south gets more exciting for dining all the time.

I was only familiar with a few Malaysian dishes before trying out Melaka Kitchen and it was a treat to try more. Like its near neighbor Singapore, Malaysia is known for its rich food culture, its street food and for being a culinary crossroads, with Indian, Chinese, Thai, and other flavors all in the mix, plus an emphasis on seafood. The country’s food reflects its geography at a trading crossroads. Part of Malaysia occupies the far southern tip of the long southeast Asian peninsula that also houses Thailand. And part of Malaysia shares the island of Borneo with Brunei and Indonesia.

If you’ve read Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, or seen the movie of the same name, you will see a lot of dishes at Melaka Kitchen that the characters eat in Singapore. Those books made me extremely hungry and I’m sad to say I haven’t had a chance to fly to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur since reading them.

I was delighted, therefore, to get a crack at Hainam chicken – a deceptively simple dish of juicy poached chicken, served on the bone with its skin seasoned to a bright yellow, alongside equally yellow, deeply chicken-flavored rice. (I’ve more often seen this dish called Hainan chicken, but here the menu uses the M.) The richness of the rice was offset by the clear, true flavor of the tender chicken, the cool crunch of cucumbers and a pungent, gingery dipping sauce, plus chili sauce to add to taste.

Such a study in contrasts was typical. Another plate I loved was the nasi lemak, a choice of chicken or beef in curry sauce, served on a divided plate with anchovy sambal, peanuts, more cucumbers, a hard-boiled egg (a touch overcooked, with a gray ring inside) and perfect coconut rice. I asked the server whether to go with chicken or beef and he unhesitatingly said beef, saying it soaks up the flavors of the sauce better. I was sold, even more so when I tasted it. Sambal is a term that can refer to several different kinds of chile-based sauces and relishes; here the anchovy sambal, presented in a pile in one segment of the divided plate had tiny whole dried fish cooked with tender onions and chiles, for a spicy, funky condiment. I got it as a lunch special, and I’d go back for it just about any time.

Another draw was the various types of roti, a hand-pulled flatbread that can be chewy, flaky, yeasty, and pleasantly oily all at once. Roti prata is light and crisp; roti bom layered into a thick disk; and roti murtabak, is, amazingly, stuffed with chicken or beef, onions, and eggs. This time, when I asked which meat, the server just as unhesitatingly recommended the chicken. All the roti, which come with a rich curry sauce for dipping, are fantastic and not to be missed, but the murtabak is like nothing I’ve ever had before.

While we’re on the subject of carbs, noodle dishes are also a strength. Char kuey teow – with flat rice noodles, shrimp, egg, crunchy bean sprouts and a dusky soy-rich sauce – reminded me slightly of pad see ew, but less sweet and a bit more complex. I was sorry, however, that the squid the menu promised was missing from the dish.

One noodle dish, mee goreng, comes in various versions; I went for the Malay-style, which was lightly spicy and complex, with chewy round wheat noodles, egg, shrimp, chicken, vegetables, chunks of tofu and a sprinkling of peanuts.

There were far too many dishes on the menu for me to try more than a smattering, but some flavor profiles and dish styles do repeat. Several dishes, for instance, are called “jintan”; I tried jintan lamb, with a hefty dose of lemon grass and cumin in a thick, delicious sauce. Sadly, the sauce was the best part of the dish; the lamb itself lacked flavor and could have been almost any meat, plus some was gristly. Another time, I’d get another meat., or would stick to tofu; there were chunks of it in the lamb dish and I preferred them to the lamb.

Sambals, red and green curries, and “santan” – a lemongrass and coconut sauce – are also available with several proteins. Salads include mango shrimp, green papaya, and gado gado; soups were also intriguing, especially the bak kut teh with pork belly and ribs. I also want to go back for more of the seafood dishes. Shrimp, in the dishes I tried, were sweet and fresh, but many other fish dishes beckoned, as does nasi goreng (fried rice).

Drink options are less plentiful than the dozens upon dozens of food choices on the menu, but milk teas and various juices – including key lime and coconut – add interest aside from sodas. (There’s no alcohol on offer.) I found I was perfectly happy with water, given the wealth of flavors and well-cooked dishes on the table. I can’t wait to go back, especially for more of that exceptional roti.

Email Kate Washington: beediningcritic@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate. For an archive of all her reviews: kwsacdiningreviews.com

Melaka Kitchen

8420 Elk Grove-Florin Road, Elk Grove. 916-378-4623.

Rating:

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Saturday

Cuisine type: Malaysian

Price range: $11 to $18

Food: One of the few spots in the region offering Malaysian cooking, Melaka Kitchen is especially strong on noodle dishes and the fantastic roti (hand-spun flatbread with a rich curry dipping sauce), but the long menu offers much to explore.

Service: The servers never intrude, but they are accommodating and helpful, especially when asked for recommendations or information about dishes. Food comes out quickly.

Ambiance: Unpretentious but pleasant, with the strip-mall setting balanced by natural light, sleek tables and comfortable booths. TVs are tuned to a street-food show.

Drinks: Nonalcoholic options only, including milky Malaysian-style hot or iced tea (less sweet and more tannic than the Thai style), plus coconut and mango juices and sodas.

Vegetarian options: Yes, several salads and soups are available in vegetarian versions as well as all-vegetable and tofu dishes, though dried shrimp may be used as a flavoring in some; best to inquire.

Noise levels: Moderate; conversation is easy.

Allergy considerations: Many dishes contain peanuts and dried shrimp; those with allergies should tread carefully.

Accessibility considerations: Restaurant is on a single level, with double doors for easier access. Tables and booths are relatively widely spaced.

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