Saturday, June 06, 2009

Banana Leaf

Why doesn't Houston eat more Malaysian food?

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 restaurant is proud of its roti canai. Just behind the counter, in plain view of the of the tables, the cooks shape the fladbread in to large discs and throw it in the air. It is easy to forget you are not in a pizzeria.

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.


Anonymous said...

I was heartbroken when Malay Bistro and especially KL Malaysian closed recently. Both had especially delicious food. Banana Leaf is fairly decent and the food tasty but I agree- the spices seem a bit toned down. Still I am grateful for whatever Malaysian I can get. Lets hope for a good future...

Sarah and Erwin said...

I love Banana Leaf. I even sing a song about it whenever I get the hankering to go. Unfortunately, it is so far away from where I live that I don't go as often as I'd like to. I agree, the roti canai is delicious. We always order one, and then order another after we eat the first b/c it is so addictive. So is stir fried squid and the fried squid. They allow you to bring in your own beer/wine and drink it in the restaurant. Thanks for posting about it!

anonymouseater said...

@Sarah and Erwin: So how does the song go?

Rubiao said...

That actually sounds amazing. Is this place the cure for the whole fish problem of which we've spoken in the past?

Sarah and Erwin said...

AE, not much too the song. Just the name of the place to a very special tune I made up. Sorry!

Anonymous said...

FYI, the place is BYOB. At least, we called before going and asked, and when we brought our own six-pack (classy, I know), the waitstaff seemed fine with it. That said, no one else in the restaurant was doing it.

Courtney said...

I'm a Houston girl living in KL right now! I can't wait to come home and try this place. And while the food here is certainly fantastic, it's hard not to miss those amazing restaurants back home too!

Cecil Mabry said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

The real question is why Houstonians don't eat more Indonesian food. said...

Malaysian food is original! It is hard to imagine anyone who would not find something to like here. Best regards,
online custom writing paper services