It might be the name of a prime-time soap, set in an organic supermarket and featuring a cast of glib twentysomethings: Young Tofu. Instead, it designates a clay pot that sits steam- ing in front of you, a collection of stuffed objects in a curried coconut broth ($5.25). Bulging with shrimp-laced tofu paste, the okra, eggplant, and long green chiles sink to the bottom, while Venetian barges of fried and unfried tofu float lazily by. This liquid museum of curd would have made a complete meal in itself, had the bewildering, 150-item menu not tempted you to stick your neck out further.
Overseas Asian Restaurant is a recent addition to the eastern end of Canal Street, where an epic battle has begun between Asian and Occidental real estate interests. Whether the hipster bars, boutiques, and bistros or the Chinese groceries and noodle shops prevail is still an open question. Overseas Asian is a Malaysian establishment, named in commemoration of the epic migration undertaken by Chinese from the southern provinces beginning three centuries ago, first to Southeast Asia, and finally to New York. The restaurant might be seen as an extension of the mini Malaysian nabe that formed around the corner of Allen and Canal in 1999, where the neighborhood’s best restaurant, Sentosa, has recently closed. Overseas Asian is every bit as good as Sentosa ever was.
Anything that comes in a clay pot is irresistible. One of the best choices goes by the unexciting name of curry mutton ($10.95). The dank, dense broth holds no potatoes or carrots, just funky gobs of flavorful meat, ragged around the edges with fat, skin, and integument—everything from the sheep but the baa. Although it doesn’t come in a crock, beef rendang ($8.95) provides stiff competition, a gorgeous heap of meat slabs balanced on a banana leaf in a sauce so dark with toasted spices it’s almost black. You’ll need an extra bowl of coconut rice ($1) to stanch the river of gravy.
Another crock-based triumph is the Malaysian standard asam laksa ($4.95), a meal-size noodle soup. The odd broth combines fishy and meaty flavors in an almost soothing sort of way, but the addition of lime juice and big stalks of lemongrass sends the sour flavor soaring like a bottle rocket. And little bits of fish skin sparkle in the murk like diamonds. Speaking of noodles, the menu at Overseas Asian is filled with them—steamed, in soups, and in stir fries. My favorite noodle dish after four visits is mee goreng ($4.95), a slightly sweet heap of thick wheat noodles tinted dark brown with palm sugar and soy sauce. The Indian provenance of this stir fry is reflected in a subtle combination of curry flavors, and half the fun lies in nosing out the little tidbits of chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts, and egg hidden therein.
The menu is filled with vegetables, but strict vegetarians had better beware, since few dishes are devoid of fish or meat products in one form or another. The beloved Malaysian vegetable kang kung ($7.95), also known as water spinach and by the tongue-tying Latin name of convolvulus, comes smeared with belacan, a fermented shrimp paste, and okra receives the same treatment. Seemingly fish-free is the appetizer achat, a delicious heap of pickled vegetables and pineapple snowed with miniature sesame seeds and crushed peanuts. It’s like something you might find the gang eating in an episode of Young Tofu.