Mak Chin's is a pan-Asian bistro on Shepard just south of I-10. It is placed in an area that needs some good Asian food.
When I tried Mak Chin's last year, I was unimpressed. I thought it was over-marketed, over-priced, fast food. I thought it mistakenly followed the P.F. Chang / Pei Wei trend of making Asian food safe for Americans by serving dull dishes with too little spice and far too much sugar.
Then, last month, I received this comment from a reader (probably affiliated with Mak Chin's):
"You might want to give Mak Chin's another try. Gone is the counter service motif. Gone is the previous menu and in its place is something superior to Rattan. Malaysian Roti Prata, Ropa Vieja of Crispy Duck, Beef Rendang, Sake Cured Alaskan Black Cod, etc. They brought in a consulting chef from San Francisco named David Yeo who specializes in Straits cuisine. It is truly a different day at Mak Chin's."
Interesting. "Straits cuisine" refers to the style of food made in Singapore and other nearby British colonies whose population included immigrants from China, India, and Malaysia. Straits cuisine tends to combine Chinese cooking methods with South Indian spices. This comment suggested that Mak Chin's was something fairly new and different.
So was it true? Did the formerly soulless Mak Chin's finally have character?
There is no doubt. Mak Chin's is different. It now has table service, instead of counter service. The prices have risen, with most entrees in the $10 - $22 range. The cheesy Asian pin-up girl theme is mostly gone. And the menu has been completely redone.
But what about the food? The new menu has some very good ideas. The sauces are unusual and tasty. But the kitchen does not always do such a great job of executing the consulting chef's ideas. For instance:
Bamboo Steamed Vegetables. This dish is a good test of a Chinese kitchen. Usually, the dish is an uninspired, overcooked mess of vegetables, mostly broccoli and cabbage, served with hoisin sauce. When I ordered the dish at Mak Chin's, it took a long time to arrive. And when it did arrive, I could tell why. The vegetables had been so overcooked that they had lost all crispness. Their texture had degenerated to a soggy mess. But I could tell the idea was good. The vegetables were not what you usually get in Americanized Chinese restaurants. They included baby bok choi, purple eggplant, tofu, carrots, asparagus, and decent quality mushrooms. Even better, the vegetables were served with a light tamarind sauce. The sauce was a very intriguing and flavorful combination with the vegetables. I found myself pouring the sauce over rice so I could eat it all.
Beef Rendang. This is an Indonesian style curry made into a paste-like sauce that contains no coconut milk. The earthy spices in this dish were very interesting, very non-Western. The curry and beef were served over an excellent coconut sticky rice, which had the perfect sticky texture. The only problem was that the beef was dry and overcooked. I don't mean that it was just well done; something seriously wrong had happened to the texture. About 15 seconds before this dish appeared at my table, I noticed the kitchen pull a similar bowl out of a microwave oven. If the kitchen had microwaved the beef, it would explain what happened to the texture. I know from experience that beef does not hold up well in the microwave.
Hot and Sour Soup / Salad. The hot and sour soup has a disappointingly standard flavor, but it does contain some interesting mushrooms. The dinner salad served with lunch is much better. The dressing has an unusual orange flavor that reminds me of an Orange Julius.
The new Mak Chin's is worth a try. Although not as good as Rattan, it might be the most interesting and different pan-Asian food inside the Loop. I say interesting because the consulting chef has created some unusually flavored sauces that do not pander to American tastes.
Based on my few visits, the kitchen needs to do a much better job with the ingredients that the sauces are used to cover. Dishes often lack soul when the kitchen that prepared them is not the same kitchen that created them. A chef who creates her own dishes cares deeply about their execution. Her dishes are her art, her legacy. In contrast, a chef running a kitchen that makes someone else's dishes just does not have that connection. They do not care as much, and the food reflects it.
Update (April 21, 2008)
Mak Chin's is evolving into a very good Thai/Malaysian restaurant catering to Western customers. Chef Yeo is in house and very hands on. He has transformed this restaurant into something unique and different.
For lunch, they have lowered the prices and started serving "Bento boxes," which include a main dish with a number of sides.
The straits curry chicken is one of the best curries I have had in some time. It is intensely earthy and full of pungent spices. It has the type of smell that my wife says reminds her of a "stinky underarm." That's a good thing. I highly recommend it.
Some of the sides in the Bento box show the influence of Americanized Chinese restaurants. The hot and sour soup is not particularly hot or sour and is topped with those strips of fried wontons that Americans love. The spring roll is ordinary, and served with an overly sweet, sweet & sour sauce. The salad is served with a miso vinaigrette. But a simple side of bok choi is both delicious and authentic.
The new formula seems to be working. Mak Chin's was crowded for lunch on Monday.
Sure, it may not be as thoroughly authentic as, say KL Malaysian or Malay Bistro. I have yet to see an Asian-American customer at Mak Chin's. But the menu is creative. The kitchen's execution has improved greatly. And, as far as I know, it remains the only place to get Malaysian food inside the Loop.