Maplewood's Malaysian Mystery

Singapore Chinese Cuisine
1715 Beam Ave., Maplewood; (651) 777-7999
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Friday 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.; Saturday noon-10:00 p.m.; Sunday 4:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.

My first visit to Singapore Chinese Cuisine was on a rainy weeknight, and the whole enterprise just reeked of despair. There was the drive out from Minneapolis on Highway 36--and I hate Highway 36. Every time I get anywhere near Highway 36, a call goes out across the land for all the people who want to play Pretend We're Snowmobilers. (I'm not being paranoid. They have some sort of phone tree, radio alert system, receivers in their teeth. There's no other logical explanation.)

I soon found myself making an illegal U-turn to get into the strip mall (and is there anything more pathetic than breaking the law to get to a strip mall? It's like getting a manicure for a session with thumb screws) when a glimpse at the odometer revealed that I was a mere 14 miles from downtown Minneapolis. Man, the way some people can whine. But the big red sign out front really did look like despair made flesh, or at least despair made plastic, what with the sluicing rain and the tire-black sky. Inside, at the height of dinnertime, there were a mere two parties seated.

I sat grumpily.

I ordered suspiciously.

And then, as dish upon dish of marvelous food arrived, I ate delightedly. There was the Captain's Curry ($9.95), slices of chicken in a vibrant 27-spice sauce made chunky by fresh-ground candlenuts and made bright and tangy and earthy by some kitchen magic. Singapore spicy calamari ($8.25) consisted of cross-hatched tubes of squid breaded with a hint of chile peppers, fried, and finally tossed with spring vegetables, which were dressed in a light lemongrass sauce--this was bar food extraordinaire, herbal and addictively tasty. The Rendang steak ($10.95), slices of beef cloaked in a potent blend of spices, dried-shrimp paste, caramelized shallots, and nuts, was intensely delicious.

By this point in my meal, the other two tables had cleared out and I was amazed by the contrast between the fantastic food and the deserted space: It seemed obvious that if this restaurant were in Uptown, Mac-Groveland, or Edina, diners would be stacked up like cats on a canary cage. So I asked the friendly waitress--who, I later would learn, was Wai Lee, half of the husband-and-wife team responsible for this suburban gem--the question at the very front of my mind: "What's a nice restaurant like you doing in a dump like this?"

My query obviously touched a nerve: Lee launched into a long tale about how she and her husband, Kin, initially set up in Maplewood because the start-up costs were low and the mall's then-new construction allowed them to have a big custom kitchen with room to really cook, and how six years later it has become clear that most of their devoted customers drive in from Minneapolis, the western suburbs, St. Paul, and Stillwater. Now, she explained, the couple is interested in moving, but they have a long-term lease and an emotional investment in their current spot: "I see it as a personal challenge," she said. "It's very hard to make this work, but it's a challenge. I like a challenge." The word challenge echoed through her speech like a consuming concern, but then she brightened and told me that the place was more appreciated on the weekends.

Sure enough, when I returned on a Saturday night, the restaurant was nearly full. Lee recognized me immediately, greeted me with a flattering "I know you--you really like Malaysian food," and proceeded to offer my table items that weren't on the menu, such as Indonesian roti, a fried version of the rolled flatbread. It was served with a bowl of vegetable curry, and Wai explained how to scoop up the stew with triangles of roti. The dish was wonderful--zingy, herbal, not in the least bit fiery, but truly gigantic in flavor. I could eat it every day. (With roti, the curry cost $7.95; the on-the-menu version with rice is $6.95. Vegetarians should note that nearly all Malaysian food is made with shrimp broth or shrimp paste. The Lees can accommodate strict vegetarians, but be sure to voice your concerns in advance.) As I surveyed neighboring tables, I noticed that we weren't the only ones getting special treatment--others were noshing on off-the-menu items like rice-paper rolls.

My table placed an order of far, far too many dishes, half from the menu, half from the specials board at the front door. Everything was marvelous. I may never write that sentence again, so gather round and I'll say it once more: Everything was marvelous. In fact, some things were absolute revelations. It was the best meal I've had this year. I particularly loved a special of a sea-bass filet in a banana leaf ($16.95). The complicated dish is made by grilling the oily fish, then basting it with a garlic-tinged sauce, folding it inside a wet banana leaf and grilling it some more--a technique which results in fish with the texture of custard and the deep, resonant flavors of sea and spice that the restaurant's complex seasoning blends impart.

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