May 2-8, 2007

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Rasa Malaysian

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
All this and no meat: Mango vegetable tofu at Rasa Malaysian.

Rasa Ruckus

Malaysian is the new Thai. Eat accordingly.

By Stett Holbrook

LET'S SAY you missed your flight out of San Jose and found yourself with a couple of hours to kill in the airport before you could get on another plane. Let's also say you were hungry. What would you do?

You could search for something decent to eat in the culinary desert that is the Mineta International Airport, but if you were looking for something more interesting than Burger King, Togo's or Señor Jalapeños, you'd be out of luck. A better option would be to grab a cab and take the short trip to Rasa Malaysian.

It's not only one of the closest restaurants to the airport, it has the added appeal of being quite good. Even if you weren't stranded at the airport it would be worth a stop.

(The 6-year-old restaurant is changing its name from Penang Village to Rasa Malaysian so I'm going with the new name. Rasa means "taste" or "feel" in Bahasa, the language of Malaysia and Indonesia).

The weathered redwood and cedar clapboard building looks like it was taken off the set of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. It even has a (nonfunctioning) outhouse. The door handle for the men's restroom is made from old horseshoes. Set as it is a sea of anonymous-looking office buildings and warehouses on Coleman Avenue, the restaurant sticks out like a whale riding a tricycle. Inside, the restaurant is a mix of Americana bric-a-brac, Malaysian tourist posters and bamboo birdcages.

Malaysian restaurants are growing in number in the South Bay and offer the excitement and exoticism that once characterized Thai food before it become boring and familiar. The cuisine is an amalgam of flavors that come from the South Asian country's ethnic diversity. India, China, Thailand and Portugal all contribute flavors and techniques to create a genuinely multiethnic cuisine.

Rasa Malaysian is more homey and less flashy than some other Malaysian restaurants I've tried, and that's part of the restaurant's appeal. When I asked the waitress on one visit about the contents of one dish, she looked over her shoulder and called out to her mother Helen Foo and asked her.

I always start meals at Malaysian restaurants with an order of roti canai, a light, naanlike bread served with peanut sauce. Rasa Malaysian's version ($3.50) is denser than others I've had and is flecked with sliced green onions, a twist that might have something to do with the Foos' Chinese heritage as well as India's influence on Malaysian cuisine. Green onion pancakes are a classic Chinese dish and are heavier than the parathalike roti. The accompanying peanut sauce is thick and more sweet than spicy.

Satay chicken ($6.50) is another classic Malaysian appetizer, but here the five skewers of grilled breast meat were dry and unappealing.

Char tway keow ($7.50) is Malaysian comfort food made from wide rice noodles sautéed with prawns and squid in a spicy-sweet sauce. The dish is served in cute little wok. The dish can be heavy and greasy, but at Rasa Malaysian it rises above that. Good too is the house curry potato beef ($10.95), a simple but hearty hot pot dish of tender beef and potato chunks in a coconut-milk-based gravylike curry.

Sambal is the most distinctive flavor of Malaysian cooking, a flavor that can be off-putting at first. It's a potent chile pepper sauce that's the equivalent of salsa in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. In Malaysia, the condiment is embellished with belacan, fermented shrimp paste that gives the sauce a salty, funky flavor that can really grow on you. Or not.

Sambal kangkung ($8.95), a Malaysian water spinach, is a good introduction to sambal because the belacan flavor is on the mild side. The tangle of dark green leaves is sautéed with a healthy dollop of sambal and is great over steamed rice. I liked the garlic okra ($8.95), tender green sections of the vegetables sautéed in a garlicky soy-based sauce.

Because Malaysian food is often quite spicy and the country itself is hot and humid, the cuisine has elevated cooling beverages to high art. Mieo peng ($2.50) is the Malaysia version of chocolate milk except it's made with cocoa malt and evaporated milk. Ais teh tarik ($2.50) is Malaysia's signature caffeinated drink—iced tea made sweet and rich with condensed and evaporated milk. Both are great. My favorite of all is chendol ($3.95). Somewhere between dessert and beverage, the slushy drink is made with shaved ice, gummy bearish strips of jelly made from green pea flour, red beans, coconut milk and dark, molasseslike palm sugar. It sounds strange, but it's a great end to your meal.

Properly fed, you're now prepared for takeoff. Enjoy your trip.

Rasa Malaysian (formerly Penang Garden)

Address: 1290 Coleman Ave., Santa Clara.

Phone: 408.980.0668.

Hours: 11am-3pm and 5-9pm Mon-Fri and 11am-9pm Sat.

Cuisine: Malaysian.

Price Range: $7-$16.

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