It doesn't make sense.
Houston is a major city. We have a large Asian population.
Every year, a few Malaysian restaurants open. And every year, because of a lack of business, about the same number close. KL closed recently. So did Malaysian-influenced Mak Chin's.
Malaysian food is booming on the West Coast, . Yet right now, Houston only has 2 or 3Malaysian restaurants.
Houstonians ought to like this food. We like spicy food. Malaysian food is spicy. We like Chinese, Indian, and Thai food. Malaysian food lies somewhere between those cuisines.
Banana Leaf tries hard to make Malaysian food accessible
Banana Leaf tries hard (perhaps too hard) to make this cuisine accessible. It is located in one of Asia-town's newest, and most contemporary strip malls. The casual decor and friendly waitstaff are welcoming. The English menu is descriptive and easy-to-read.
Most importantly, you can see the dishes on TV. Every table along the wall has a small flat screen with a colorful slide show.
And the food looks quite good.
The best dish I've tried is banana leaf BBQ fish with flounder. The fish is served whole, covered in a funky, slightly sweet shrimp paste. The server debones the fish at the table.
It is rare to see whole-fish flounder in Houston restaurants. Yet it makes so much sense. Flounder is firm, yet not too thick. So it stands up to the wok cooking, while still absorbing the sauce. Its large bones make it easy to eat. Avoid getting the less expensive version of this dish with tilapia or the more expensive version with sea bass.
The ultimate comfort food, this bread is served warm with textures of crisp toast and soft dough. It is served with a slightly spicy curry sauce. I found myself wanting a little more spice.
The rest of the menu reminds you that Malaysian food is the original pan-Asian food. The country's position as a trade crossroads is reflected in dishes that range from satay to curry to pad thai to Chinese-style flat fried noodles.
Stir-fried pearl noodles taste like they could fit on the menu of any Chinese restaurant. Yet the noodles have a fascinating worm-like texture -- almost like a gummy bear -- that makes the dish just a little more exotic.
No alcohol is served, but the kitchen makes some interesting drinks, including durian slushee and a satisfying, slightly sweet, Malaysian Ice Milk Tea.
If there is a gripe about Banana Leaf, it is that it doesn't do enough to differentiate itself from mainstream Asian restaurants in Houston. The restaurant seems to be holding back. For instance, the spices in sambal shrimp and beef rendang are muted compared to some Malaysian restaurants. I was left wondering whether the restaurant toned down the spices for the same reason it bought in the TV menus. Accessibility has its drawbacks.
Regardless, at this moment, this is the best Malaysian food we have. It is hard to imagine anyone who would not find something to like here.