By Dan Lieberman, @LiebermanTweets
I don’t know much of anything about Malaysia. I’ve never been (heard it’s lovely), don’t know many people from there (shoutout to Suzanne from the third grade), and am totally ignorant of its history (not even going to try). One thing I do know, however, is that their food is outstanding, a crossroads for Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian flavors taking the best of what’s around and fusing it together for maximum deliciousness.
Ipoh Garden is located just a stone’s throw from the Millbrae Caltrain Station. Walking in gives you a more tropical feel than one normally expects on El Camino Real, and we were quickly greeted by a friendly server who was happy to answer questions about what we were getting into.
I, however, knew exactly what I had to do once I cracked the menu and saw the word “laksa.” Ever since I heard Padma Lakshmi complain about a wannabe Top Chef’s underwhelming version, I’ve wanted in on this action, but I hadn’t yet discovered a bowl to Columbus. We placed our orders and I resisted the urge to tuck a napkin into my collar in anticipation.
The satay chicken and samosas came quickly, as did a giant mug of lychee juice with a half dozen of those delicious, grapey orbs sitting at the bottom. The chicken was just where it should have been, juicy and well-seasoned, perfectly pairing with the peanut sauce.
The samosas were light and crispy with a flavorful sauce and a hint of heat. Shortly after, my colleagues received their meals. The salmon came in a sweet tomato sauce, rich and flavorful with the fish well cooked. The tofu satay seemed like an Asian take on a cucumber sandwich, with the crispy tofu stuffed with cucumber and bean sprouts, which our token vegetarian enjoyed greatly. The Hainan chicken was simple perfection, with beautifully poached meat in a sauce of garlic, ginger and soy sauce and both red and green chili sauce on the side.
But my laksa came in commanding respect. The bowl was a beautiful color of orange, crowded with vegetables and chicken. The okra absorbed all those flavors while losing the sliminess that prevents so many from embracing it. Through some magic, the green beans were crispy while the eggplant had become tender to the point of almost dissolving. Even the rice noodles and strips of tofu seemed decadent, thanks to the steaming broth, rich with coconut milk and seemingly every herb and spice that exist anywhere between Kolkata and Shanghai.
After surviving this assault of flavor, the mango sticky rice was a welcome respite, proving that simple things can be magical on their own. When we returned to the office, we realized we had spent the whole train ride back discussing what we had just eaten, a solid sign we had found something wonderful. If you have time to kill waiting on a BART-Caltrain transfer and need either a quick bite or a solid meal, Ipoh Garden is worth checking out. Even if you have never tried this rich and diverse cuisine, you will find familiar flavors in new contexts prepared with love and care.
Chew Chew Train is a monthly blog feature highlighting places to eat along the Caltrain line. If you have a suggestion for a future restaurant, please email Public Affairs Specialist Dan Lieberman at firstname.lastname@example.org.