Love in a Curry

Hot Malaysian street food in Williamsburg

We've got Thai khao soi with soft egg noodles and chicken on the bone and bowls of Vietnamese pho crowded with beef offal and basil, but there aren't too many places in the city to go for northern Malaysia's hot and sour asam laksa, one of the world's greatest noodle soups.

At newly opened Pasar Malam, in Williamsburg, chef and co-owner Salil Mehta is making a fine one with stretchy rice noodles and soft pieces of poached sardine ($15). Get a whiff of the steam rolling off the top and you'll be slapped, ever so gently, with fresh ginger flowers, mint and lemongrass. Sip the broth and you'll find it's built on a deep and intensely fishy base of sardine bones, that it's tangy and sour with tamarind. This is a dish that reminds you how much you can really handle, all at once, without being overwhelmed.

Asam laksa in the making [Photo: Tasting Table]

Mehta and his wife, Stacey, took over their first restaurant, Laut, in 2010. Under the tutelage of his friend's mother, a Peranakan cook named Margaret Goh, he quickly dialed back on the sweetness of the Malaysian and Thai food on the menu and tinkered with the dishes until he earned the place a Michelin star.

At Pasar Malam, the Mehtas are now focusing almost entirely on Malaysian food, rich with Indian, Chinese, Thai and English influences, to name a few. The big, dark dining room sprawls out with an open kitchen, popping with garlands of fake marigolds and night market-style signs for noodle soups and roti glowing on the walls.

Yes, there's a tom yum on the menu, but Mehta says he'll be nixing it soon, and anyway you're not here for the tom yum. Ignore it! Focus instead on what those roti cooks are getting up to in the front of the open kitchen. They stretch the soft dough out until it's so thin you can see right through it, then fold it with drips of clarified butter and press the flatbread to the hot metal. Each one's made to order. It's beautiful.

[Photo: Tasting Table]

You could technically make a freaky roti-centric meal here: Starting with roti canai ($6), in thin, crisp layers with a spicy gravy on the side and moving on to the slightly thicker, stretchier roti prata ($6) filled with sweet red onions. After the burn of roti murtabak ($9), the fat pieces of pastry stuffed with ground beef and peppers, you could cool off with roti tisu ($9) impossibly delicate layers that barely hold up to the weight of sweetened condensed milk.

But the roti selection is just the tip of Pasar Malam's giant menu. There's a cooling rojak ($8), a super savory fruit salad sweet with pineapple (and pleasantly stinky with shrimp paste). And this past weekend, the Mehtas launched a brunch menu with new stuff including that trashy, hangover-defying superstar of the night market, the Ramly Burger—a spicy little beef patty wrapped in a thin omelet, served here with Maggi chile sauce and Kraft cheese in a squishy bun ($12). 

Though the restaurant has only been open for a few weeks, Mehta says that NYC-based Malaysians have been emailing him to put in special requests for off-menu dishes, like pepper crab and salted egg crab. Mehta calls these enthusiasts his "makan club," and being part of it sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Membership is free and the only thing required is a love for Malaysian food. Sign us up.

At Pasar Malam, in Williamsburg, Malaysian street food shines. The rotis, or flatbreads, are made to order. [Photo: Tasting Table]

The restaurant is named for Malaysia's night markets, where vendors sell snacks like satay, noodle soups and, of course, rotis. [Photo: Tasting Table]

Don't skip the rojak, a sweet-savory fruit salad made with pineapple, green mango and jicama, garnished with fragrant pink ginger flowers. [Photo: Tasting Table]

In addition to hawker-themed signage, the restaurant is decorated with vintage beer signs and old comic books. [Photo: Tasting Table]

Husband-and-wife co-owners Salil and Stacey Mehta have three children and two restaurants together. They were both born in India, but have a passion for Malaysian food. [Photo: Tasting Table]

Asam laksa, the sour noodle soup from northern Malaysia, involves many ingredients layered together in harmony, and a fish broth rich with toasted belacan, the Malaysian fermented shrimp paste, and aromatics such as galangal, lemongrass, shallots and chile. [Photo: Tasting Table]

The broth and noodles are topped with fresh ingredients, including Vietnamese mint (also known as laksa leaves), pink ginger flowers, red onion and chiles. [Photo: Tasting Table]