K.L. Malaysian Restaurant is located, a few blocks west of Sharpstown Mall on Bellaire, in a red brick house. In Malaysia, "K.L." is the frequently-used abbreviation for Kuala Lumpur, a spectacularly modern city with some of the world's tallest skyscrapers.
In contrast, K.L. Restaurant is not very urban, just quaint. The interior feels like someone's home. Although I don't know that they are related, the staff seem like a welcoming family.
K.L. is cheap. It has a large menu that is a good introduction to Malaysian cuisine.
Malaysian Plate Lunch (Breakfast) - Nasi Lemak
A good way to start, at lunch on weekdays, is the $4.95 plate called Nasi Lemak. In Malaysia, this is a popular dish for breakfast, but for Western tastes, it makes more sense as lunch. The central ingredient is a large pile of rice, soaked in coconut milk and then steamed. The rice is surrounded by small servings of various condiment-like ingredients: beef curry, tofu, tiny dried anchovies, sliced cucumber, and a hard boiled egg.
The dish reminds me of a traditional Hawaiian plate lunch -- a mixed variety of dishes surrounding a serving of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad. The Malaysian version does not have the macaroni salad, but the idea is similar. Overall, the flavors of this dish are salty and savory. No single condiment stands out, but the overall mix is satisfying.
K.L. serves a wonderful starter dish for $2.95 called roti canai -- lightly grilled flatbreads with a spicy curry dipping sauce. The bread reminds me of Naan, but it is much softer. The grilled flavor of the bread, and the spicy heat of the sauce, make this dish highly addictive.
When I brought my daughter, she ordered KL fish cakes. She probably was expecting fried fish. Instead, the fish had been pulverized, resulting in a smooth, gelatinous texture, with bits of onions and vegetables. On the exterior was a very thin, unbattered, fried crust. I appreciated the unusual textures of this dish. My daughter appreciated the spicy sweet and sour sauce served with it.
Malaysian food is a crossroads for the flavors of India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. This is evident in the flavors of K.L.'s main courses.
Shrimp sambal is made with a paste-like sauce of chili, shrimp paste, salt, sugar, and lime. The flavors resemble the food of Thailand, or even Vietnam. The shrimp I tried were surprisingly high quality; they actually tasted like shrimp. This is the most flavorful dish I have had at KL.
Rendang beef is made with a curry paste. The flavors resemble an Indian curry, but include southeast Asian flavors. In the west, we are used to wet curries, often made from coconut milk. This curry is more of a paste. It is full of spices, and some coconut paste, but is not particularly hot. I like the fact that KL serves its beef medium to medium rare. But for my tastes, the beef is a little tough, with a consistency resembling a flank steak. The dish would benefit from a better cut of steak, or more tenderizing. Yet given the tasty curry, the large quantity, and the $6 or so price tag, the dish is steal.
I recommend K.L. if you are a fan of cheap Asian food, or like taking your friends to tasty ethnic dives that you can claim credit for discovering. But I also recommend it if you are interested in Malaysian cuisine. Houston has had several new Malaysian restaurants in the past few years, and hopefully we will soon see even more of this fascinating food.
Update 7.8.09. K.L. has closed. Houston has few Malaysian food restaurants left. In the Bellaire Asia Town, we have Banana Leaf and Cafe Singapore. Sugarland has Nonya Cafe. As far as I know, that's it.