Satay Malaysian Grille – Las Vegas, Nevada

While Albuquerque has come a long way toward becoming a cultural melting pot, a dramatic dearth still exists when it comes to a pot of another sort–the pot in which enculturated diners might find simmering some of the world’s most flavorful cuisine: Ethiopian, Basque, Russian, Hawaiian and Malaysian, for example.  Fortunately, more cosmopolitan dining destinations such as Las Vegas are only a short flight away.

Las Vegas diners have embraced the Satay Malaysian Grille, the first Chinatown area restaurant to feature the fragrant spices, pungent curries and distinctive flavor combinations that have long made Malaysian cuisine a favorite of savvy diners.  Talk about a melting pot.  The population of Malaysia is comprised heavily of ethnic Chinese and Indians so it stands to reason that their cuisines would play a major culinary influence in the development of their cuisine.  Proximity to Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam certainly wielded some influence as well.

The Satay Grille is named for the popular grilled skewers with which aficionados of Thai cuisine are familiar.  Regarded as “street food” throughout the Far East, satay has become a popular American favorite, perhaps because of its similarity to the skewers prepared on many a barbecue grill. 

A satay combination at the Satay Grille yields six marinated and grilled over an open flame skewers (three of chicken and three of beef) of perhaps the most moist, tender and delicious satay you’ve ever experienced.  The satay is so thick that in comparison, satay served in some Thai restaurants may resemble emaciated strips of carne seca (beef jerky).  The accompanying peanut sauce is also thick, punctuated subtly with curry and other spices.  Unlike some peanut sauce we’ve had elsewhere, it was not at all cloying. 

A visit to a Malaysian restaurant isn’t complete without an order of Roti Canai, a rich, multi-layered bread which resembles Indian naan, not only because it is served in wedges, but because of its texture.  Unlike naan which tends to be somewhat flat and dry, roti is almost buttery in its composition and is more fluffy than flat.  The roti is served with a pungent and delicious red curry sans coconut milk.

The appetizer menu includes items listed as “Indian style,” “Thai style” and even “Filipino style.”  Filipino style would be the lumpia, deep-fried egg rolls stuffed with minced pork, beef, shrimp and shiitake mushrooms.  The cigar shaped lumpia are served with the sweet chili sauce which is ubiquitous in Far East cuisine.

One dish sure to please even the most ardent of curry enthusiasts is the curry laksa, a soup concoction featuring both thick yellow noodles and vermicelli in a thin broth of heady red curry with just a subtle coconut influence.  The soup also includes shredded chicken, fish ball, fried tofu and bean sprouts, all served in a swimming pool sized bowl.  It is quite simply one of the two or three best curry-based soups I’ve ever savored despite somewhat chewy, non-white chicken pieces.  

Noodle nuts could take the easy route and order Pad Thai, the traditional Thai noodle dish, but the more adventurous diner will order Char Kueh Teow, Penang style flat rice noodles stir-fried with chives, bean sprouts and eggs.  It’s rather similar to Pad Thai without the almost dessert-like sweetness of the dish. 

You’ll want to save your sweet tooth for the Satay Grille’s dessert offerings, the most popular among Malaysians being roti gula, which features the aforementioned Indian style bread topped with brown sugar and condensed milk.  This dessert is both savory and sweet in almost equal proportions.  It’s a wonderful way to finish a memorable meal.

Satay Grille is sure to become an even more popular dining destination as word of mouth spreads among adventurous diners.  It is one of the three very best Malaysian restaurants in which I’ve dined, a true find!

Satay Malaysian Grille
3755 Spring Mountain Road, Suite 102
Las Vegas, NV
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 9 June 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET:Rotay Canai, Lumpia, Satay Combo, Curry Laksa, Char Kueh Teow, Roti Gula

Spice Islands Cafe – Mountain View, California

Spice Islands in Mountain View, California

Spice Islands in Mountain View, California (Photo courtesy of Ming Lee)

During a two-hour layover en route to a business meeting in Silicon Valley, I managed to devour every single delectable word of Garlic and Sapphires, the raucously entertaining bestseller to be by Ruth Reichl, erstwhile restaurant critic for the New York Times.  The book–woven with the same incomparable alchemy with which she crafts her restaurant reviews–was transcendent in its ability to paint vividly palpable pictures with unmatched clarity and flair.

I can only hope a modicum of that alchemy rubbed off on me because the Spice Islands Cafe, the first restaurant I visited after reading the book, deserves the Ruth Reichl treatment.  Not being Ruth Reichl, I’ll probably subject you to my usual parochial repertoire of tired adjectives in describing a meal a Japanese dining patron might say had moments of unami–moments in which something is exactly right.

Spice Islands is tucked away in a woodsy idyll less than an hour away from San Francisco.  For aficionados of Asian cuisine, downtown Mountain View is Nirvana with Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai and Sushi restaurants occupying many of the area’s edifices.  Your greatest challenge will be selecting from which cuisine to partake.

The interior of Spice Islands in Mountain View, California

The interior of Spice Islands in Mountain View, California (Photo courtesy of Ming Lee)

For me, the recognition that Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian dishes form a unique intermingling of tastes and aromas from the various cultures of Southeast Asia made it a “no-brainer.”  In Asia there is no cuisine as diverse yet as inclusive as those of Southeast Asia–cuisine which skillfully melds Indian curries, Chinese seasonings and the pungent herbs and spices of the region: hot chili, garlic, curry, basil, lemon grass and more to create aromatic flavors and even better memories.

With over 150 menu selections (all of them tempting) from which to choose, it may be daunting to make a final selection, but it’s unlikely you’ll make a bad selection.

Katong Laksa

Katong Laksa (Photo courtesy of Ming Lee)

An excellent prelude to an outstanding meal should begin with poh piah, steamed Singaporean spring rolls that melt in your mouth.  Stuffed with jicama, lettuce, bean sprouts and prawns, four spring roll halves arrive sliced diagonally in a triangular black plate on which is drizzled in a linear arrangement, a spicy, sweet peanut sauce.  The presentation is truly worthy of these succulent, moist and delicious rolls.

A second Singaporean appetizer option is the Lamb Murtabak, essentially a crepe-thin pancake stuffed with minced lamb, potatoes, onions, bell peppers, egg, cloves and other ingredients then served with a pungent curry.  Like the rest of your meal, the only thing that would make it better would be sharing it with someone you love.

Poh Piah closeup

Poh Piah closeup (Photo courtesy of Ming Lee)

A worthy successor to these outstanding appetizers is the Chicken Nenas, a hallowed-out pineapple filled with a curry of tender, sliced chicken and pineapple then made even more rich and redolent with flavor by the infusion of coconut milk laden curry, lemon grass, scallions and mint.  It was a dish on par with any curry dish I’ve had anywhere including the fabled Las Vegas institution Lotus of Siam.

For dessert, a popular choice is the house specialty, the peanut pancake.  A crispy yet chewy pancake is filled with ground peanuts and honey on top of which is dolloped a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce.  It was plate-licking good.  The Spice Islands Cafe is a rare restaurant, one whose food will imprint itself on your memories for a long time and a restaurant in which you will truly experience unami.

Photos courtesy of my friend Ming Lee.

Spice Islands Cafe
210 Hope Street
Mountain View, California
(650) 961-3500

LATEST VISIT: 10 May 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Murtabak; Poh Piah; Chicken Nenas; Peanut Pancakes