Gado-gado, an Indonesian invention often found in Malaysian restaurants, is a salad of veggies, hard-boiled eggs, tofu, and bean sprouts hosed with a salty peanut sauce called sambal kacang.
But when we ordered it at Belachan—a Malaysian cafe in Sunset Park’s Chinatown—the chef was freestylin’ with it. From the humongous heap ($5.99) we also happily dredged krupuk chips embedded with fresh shrimp, bright yellow cubes of pineapple, and planks of tempeh (the fermented, more-toothsome tofu). Offering many cooling salads, Belachan could be your favorite summer lunch spot.
The place is named after the pungent fermented shrimp paste that enlivens the peanut dressing. Used nearly everywhere, it makes the menu a vegetarian’s nightmare of seafood products in unexpected (and often undetectable) places. Fishetarians: Gobble on! Sauteed okra arrives smeared with belachan, as does on choy ($8.95), a pond weed sometimes known as kang kong (not to be confused with a certain 30-foot gorilla). And belachan dominates the dark dipping sauce for rojak, a delectable assortment of sliced mango, jicama, pineapple, and cucumber presented as a fruity Malaysian fondue. The restaurant is clad with travel posters and bamboo architrave, intended to make it resemble a peasant village in southeast Asia. It looks more like an Epcot Center snack bar.
Belachan’s massive menu might be described as Sino-Malaysian, since it includes all sorts of regional Chinese fare—not only the adapted dishes brought to the archipelago centuries ago by Chinese immigrants now known as Nonya (“grandma”) cuisine, but also ones found in neighborhood Cantonese greasy spoons in America. These are offered, I’m certain, as a palliative for the tables of Chinese diners who frequent the place. But this Chinese orientation can be a tremendous advantage: Belachan turns out the city’s best Hainanese chicken, a dish named after an island in China’s southernmost province. The big bird is slow-poached in pork broth, rendering it plump and tender, and arrives at your table awash in a light soy sauce festively decorated with cukes and scallions. The straightforward cooking method allows the bird’s quintessential chicken-ness to shine. You’ve never had fresher tasting poultry.
Then again, other dishes smack you upside the head with the intensity of their flavors. From a menu that vastly favors seafood over chicken, beef, and pork, shrimp and stingray are your best choices. Also known as skate, stingray is Malaysia’s favorite fish. These are not the puny specimens found in local fish markets. “Spicy flavored stingray” ($13.95) features a fist-size hunk that must have been hacked from a ray large enough to scare swimmers. It comes smothered in a chunky red sauce that is by turns sweet, fishy, oniony, and howlingly hot. Scrape the sweet and stringy white flesh away from the chitin spines to eat it. You can also have your skate more blandly grilled in a banana leaf. As at other Malaysian spots in town, you can’t go wrong with noodles. Elsewhere called pearl noodles, needle noodles ($4.95) are extruded rice noodles with tapered ends and an opalescent sheen that are stir fried with scallions and ground pork. Queen of the noodle soups–sometimes described as Malaysia’s national dish—is asam laksa, an out-of-control swamp of powerful flavors made doubly tart with tamarind and lemongrass. It will leave your lips puckered and your mouth on fire—in a good way, of course.