Tangy pork chops--pounded thin, marinated with lemongrass, ginger, and galangal, grilled and served on a bed of lettuce--were another big hit. The high-energy dish had a low-watt price, only $9.95 for four of the zippy chops. Other incredible bargains included curry laksa, a gigantic bowl of rice noodles in a sweet coconut milk-enriched curry soup studded with big tender shrimp and curls of ivory-toned calamari ($6.95). An appetizer platter ($8.95) was generous, if not shockingly good like the other dishes. It featured a pair of little vegetable-filled egg rolls, fragrant satay chicken, shrimp crackers, fried dumplings, a chopped-vegetable salad and, on our visit, a grilled pork chop. The only thing I could have lived without were the curried, stir-fried Singapore rice noodles ($7.25), which seemed flat. I was disappointed to have missed the restaurant's chow fun noodles, served with beef or clams and egg ($6.95); I am especially heartbroken now that I have learned that the Lees fly in the thick, soft little sheets fresh from a Seattle noodle shop.

Later I would discover a dozen more ways in which Singapore Chinese does backflips to ensure quality. For example, they import fresh Asian candlenuts--rarely seen at local restaurants because their high fat content makes them hard to store. They use fresh, local chickens instead of cheap mass-market brands. They have developed a three-part spice-buying regimen, getting fresh herbs from local co-ops, chile peppers from local growers, and dried spices from overseas. They regularly take food-research trips to places like Toronto, New York, and Vancouver, in pursuit of new ideas and rare ingredients. (I wish I had been at the restaurant after the New York trip, when Kin Lee brought back ingredients for a special of chicken with dried Chinese scallops and fresh ginseng root.)

To get an idea of what these little details add up to, consider that Kin Lee estimates he uses around two hundred spices on a daily basis. Which is why it's impossible to identify individual flavors in the food he makes--each dish is as distinct as a perfume. Lee's cooking, like so many complicated things, looks deceptively easy: He works between a trio of red-hot woks and a refrigerated bank of drawers where he stores freshly made ground-spice pastes, chile oils, and herb mixtures. To his left lie small containers of custom-blended dry-spice powders, to his right a pot of shrimp stock and squeeze bottles of house-made sauces and oils. This array of components allows Kin, with a few quick hand movements, to come up with the precise blend of ingredients that gives a particular curry its distinct signature of 30, or 70, or 170, different flavors. (Except for the chop suey, the chow mein, and the egg foo yung: Lee won't make those--he reserves the thankless task for his kitchen assistants.)

Of course, I had to ask Lee about the whole Maplewood thing--not to keep flogging the town, but this is the place ridiculed in the film Los Enchiladas! as one whose natives clamor for salsa made only of ketchup and tomatoes. Kin said that the family is definitely on the lookout for another space, and no one knows better than he what a drag the commute is: He and Wai live in Minneapolis and sometimes make the trek out to Maplewood four times a day. In the meantime, the restaurant's bread and butter remain the hardy regulars, like the group of retired University of Minnesota professors who come up once a month for special ten-course meals created by Kin, or the devotees who simply tell Wai to have Kin cook for them--the strategy I plan to adopt on my next visit. Oh, and a word to the wise, if you ever show up and see "Satay Hot Dog," or "Malaysian Hamburger" on the specials board--that's just a little inside joke, a little howl on the frustrations of selling sea bass grilled in banana leaves in a chop suey town.

 

On June 12, Singapore Chinese Cuisine stages its second annual Malaysian Night, a prix-fixe feast of many courses, designed to celebrate the complexities of Malaysian cooking. The dinner, priced at $19.95 per person, is already filling up with food critics and other nuts who have made their reservations--airline and dining--from as far away as Hawaii and California. If you want in, call fast.

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