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.
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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