Three large shrimp, shell on for extra crunch, are embedded like gems in the shiny golden surface of a hot fritter. Once bitten into, these fritters prove wonderfully oily and chewy inside, as gladsome as pound cake. Meanwhile, the umami-laden dipping sauce adds a high note to it all.
When I strolled into Medan Pasar, named after the historic market square adjacent to Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, a few days after it opened late last year, the first thing I noticed on the menu were these saucer-sized prawn fritters, called cucur udang. Previously, I’d been trekking to Indonesian bodega OK Indo in Elmhurst to get them, so finding them here, at New York City’s latest Malaysian restaurant, came as an ecstatic surprise. Costing only $6 for two, they’re also a great deal.
Malaysian restaurants are less common in New York than they once were. Fifteen years ago, Chinatown was hopping with them. Places with names like Sentosa, Skyway, and Proton Saga — the last not a sci-fi movie, but the first automobile manufactured in Malaysia — radiated from the corner of Allen and Grand, constituting a Malaysian mini-neighborhood. Now our foremost Malaysian restaurant is the nearby Kopitiam, which began life as a breakfast spot and became so much more. Medan Pasar, though, feels less like a destination and more like a plain old neighborhood joint, representing a modern adaptation of the Malaysian menu for today’s challenging restaurant environment. But its foreshortened menu still offers unexpected delights, like those shrimp fritters.
The owners and co-chefs are Chao Chen and Chuan Tan, who previously operated restaurants in New Brunswick, New Jersey. This is their first New York City outing. The deep and narrow cafe has an eating shelf on one side and row of tables on the other, now empty, culminating in a counter. Step up to the counter expecting to order, and you’ll be pointed toward a giant touch-screen contraption affixed to the wall, giving the place a futuristic air. Not only are menu items listed, but each one comes with a dozen or so options, allowing you to eliminate or increase ingredients and otherwise modify each dish — at your own peril, of course.
But most customers order remotely. Last Sunday, as an outdoor space was being constructed (looking like a garden shed, it was too closed in for me) to entertain those preferring to dine in the immediate proximity of the restaurant, the customers milled around outside to pick up their bags of carryout. The menu has a core of 15 quintessential Malaysian (and sometimes Indonesian) dishes, plus various sides and beverages.
Of course, if you’ve never tried Malaysian food before, the must-order is nasi lemak, which loosely translates to “richly flavored rice.” The rice is both a signature and a synecdoche, since the rice itself is only one small aspect of this extravagant combo meal. It offers your choice of chicken curry or beef rendang ($8.50 and $9.50, respectively), and then piles on the roasted peanuts, dried anchovies, sliced cukes, a fried egg, and a sambal — a popular chile paste with many variations in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, in which each bite should be dipped.
Although the boneless white-meat chicken is tasty, the beef rendang is better. Usually associated with the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a mere 40 miles from Malaysia at the narrowest point of the Strait of Malacca, it features chunks of beef boiled in coconut milk almost to the consistency of sludge, but exceedingly delicious sludge. This is one dish that should burn your mouth, so poke “extra spicy” on the touch screen.
Fit for a light lunch or shared starter, the cold and chunky composed salads for which Malaysia is famous are well represented by rojak ($7). Mango and pineapple provide fruitiness, and jicama gives crunch, while fermented shrimp paste and crushed peanuts furnish further complexity. Oh, and there’s dense pressed tofu in there somewhere, too. It’s not an Instagram-ready dish, but one that is fortifying and fascinating, with a bonus of shrimp chips sticking out like pale shrubs.
There’s one dessert, and it’s a doozy if you love bubble tea. Sounding like a brisk dance, bubur cha cha ($6) predates the bubble-tea phenomenon, consisting of a seemingly random but admirable collection of ingredients — white sweet potato, purple potato, orange yam, tapioca pearls, brown cane syrup, and pandan leaves — boiled in coconut milk to a near-porridge consistency and poured into a 24-ounce glass. The flavor is sweet, the tapioca pearls chewy and elusive. Close your eyes and take a sip, and you may feel like you’re wandering through a market square in Kuala Lumpur — or the New York Chinatown of a couple decades ago.