You won't find much Malaysian food in Denver. A few restaurants offer snapshots of the cuisine in menu tours of Southeast Asia — like the shrimp-and-octopus laksa (a spicy noodle soup) that was recently on Cho77's rotating roster, or the handful of offerings at Jaya Asian Grill. But if you want a full menu of Malaysian specialties from appetizers to desserts, the only place in town is still Makan Malaysian Cafe, which opened three years ago in Platt Park and has undergone a few changes — a shift in operating hours and the addition of a liquor license — but remains a solid choice for anyone looking to explore a region of the world a touch more southerly than the Vietnamese and Thai restaurants that have become much more numerous.
Malaysia itself is a country of diverse cultures and influences, so it's no wonder that some of the flavors and names are familiar to fans of other cuisines, most notably Indian. Roti flatbread comes plain or stuffed with a variety of fillings and is made to order so that each one is fresh, warm and chewy. Curries range from dark, beefy redang to a lighter kari ayam with chicken, which skews more toward a Thai coconut curry in flavor.
Now I know of more than one place in Denver to get housemade curry puffs.
Other Thai influences can be found, too (or perhaps the dishes we know as Thai originated in Malaysia): Curry puffs are almost identical to those on the menu at Suvipa Thai on Federal Boulevard, only with the addition of chicken to the heavily spiced potato mixture inside the tender, flaky shell. And by now, most Americans are familiar with chicken satay skewers since those have become common on appetizer menus, even in many standard bar and grills (and even Rachael Ray and Jamie Oliver offer recipes). Chinese influences are evident, as well, in siu mai dumplings and fried wontons — at Makan filled with pork and shrimp instead of crab and cream cheese. While the names and shapes are familiar, the flavors are distinct, with chile sauce adding tangy heat in place of blander sauces and bursts of shrimp paste and tamarind adding complexity.
Makan's distinctly Malaysian dishes are where the menu diverges from the familiar. A creamy bowl of laksa shares common ingredients with similar Thai soups — coconut milk, red chiles and tamarind, for example — but springy egg noodles give the soup more heft, and milk-white fish balls are far different than those found in Vietnamese soups, with a texture and flavor closer to a dense scallop than a ground-fish meatball. Orange beads of chile oil form patterns on the surface of the laksa and add a warmth that builds to crescendos before a gulp or two of beer dispels the burn. There are so many pulverized herbs and spices in the broth that the soft-cooked fibers form rafts that serve as another textural component in the mix, along with puffy cubes of fried tofu that serve as sponges to soak up every last bit of the soup.
Nasi lemak is even further removed from the familiar, primarily because of the variety of condiments intended to be eaten with the fragrant coconut rice that forms the base of the dish. Whole peanuts and hard-boiled eggs are common enough, but the haystack of crispy-fried anchovies — with glints of silver skin gleaming against the rust-colored flesh — present a challenge, and a dark spoonful of intense sambal only adds to the funky flavors. Makan's version isn't like the bright-red sauce with the familiar rooster label that you can find at most grocery stores; instead it's deep brown, salty, sharp and hot from a multitude of ingredients. Mixing a little of everything, along with a slice of cooling cucumber, makes for a riot of flavors that makes many Southeast Asian dishes so distinctive. For a little extra, you can add a side dish of chicken, beef or lentil curry.
A bowl of laksa fresh from the kitchen.
In the small, open kitchen, chef-owner Karen Wee Lin Tan Beckman turns out every order in a blur of activity, so when you go, don't expect dishes to materialize instantly. Instead, order a Tiger beer and an appetizer and relax in the bright and compact dining room — there's even a family-style menu with groups of appetizers and entrees at three different prices ranges in case you're not comfortable navigating the a la carte menu yourself. And afterward, hang out with housemade pastries tinted bright green from pandan leaf and an Australian-style "flat white" coffee. The pace of the restaurant matches the surrounding neighborhood and stands in welcome relief from the bumper-car derby of strollers at other nearby eateries. And for a distinctly Denver twist to your Malaysian experience, grab your order to go and take a seat at Platt Park Brewing next door — though you may need to dodge strollers there, too.
In Ethniche, Mark Antonation explores the cuisine of a different culture, region or country every month, visiting four or five eateries for an overview of how that cuisine fits into the Denver dining scene. His explorations have ranged from a deep dive into Salvadorean pupusas to a cross-section of traditional Chinese New Year specialties to a look into the state of Southern barbecue along the Front Range. For the month of July, he's offering a potpourri of cultures with little restaurant representation in town — ethnic cuisines that might otherwise be overlooked.
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Makan Malaysian Cafe asks, "Have you eaten?"