Cafe Reviews

Got Rice?

I was just trying to make some rice.

It's only about 10,000 degrees outside right now. So who wants to cook and heat up the house even more? Or even eat, really. I'm pretty sure I'm slowly melting, and it doesn't do much for my appetite.

Rice sounded great, cooked in a non-heat-throwing steamer. I'd take a small portion in a coffee cup, moisten it with soy sauce and butter, and slowly nibble in front of the fan, gulping great big cups of polar-cold, gently-frozen-so-there's-an-ice-crust-on-the-surface, sparkling-fresh water. I'd put my feet up for a precious few minutes, lie back on the couch, and watch my new favorite TV show, Blind Date. (Finally! Proof that I'm not crazy — half the world really is whacked. Especially these losers who have to rely on a twisted reality show to convince anyone to go out with them.)

Except that when I plugged in the steamer, the outlet fell out of the wall, cracking the new marble outlet cover I'd just bought, since the fixture hadn't been properly screwed in. And when I tried a different plug, the steamer wouldn't turn on. So I scrubbed its dainty heating-coil innards with vinegar and a toothbrush, thinking that starch had built up over the mechanism. I emptied and scrubbed and re-plugged for 15 minutes. Still no go.

I would have read the directions on the rice bag to remind myself how to cook it in a pot, except that Santiago, my dog, had dragged the bag off the counter and eaten a portion of the plastic, so I partly guessed. The rice promptly boiled over, coating my range with sticky, starchy goo, then collected in a sodden, hostile heap of gummy grain. No matter; by then I'd found I was out of soy sauce anyway, and even though putting sauce on rice is sacrilege in Japan, I have to have it.

I dumped the rice, got my big cup of ice water, and turned on the TV. Blind Date was a rerun, and I couldn't bear to watch the same girl with implants drink too much over dinner and decide to start flashing guests in the restaurant, then wonder why her date won't go out with her again. Seeing it once is funny. Twice gets embarrassing.

So I left the white-crusted pot vandalized in the sink and fled the house, heading to Bunga Raya restaurant, hoping to find a love connection with Malaysian cuisine. Actually, my failed efforts made driving 40 miles round-trip to Bunga Raya — to let them cook rice — seem a whole lot easier than staying home.

Plus I figured that the owners of Bunga Raya, the Valley's new and only Malaysian restaurant, do it a whole lot better anyway. Malaysians eat a lot of rice, often simply boiled and served plain. Bunga Raya has been getting a lot of buzz among local foodies, since our virgin Valley has never seen such a thing, and there's a guy littering local food writers' e-mails with positive propaganda. I've been wanting to experiment with the multicultural cuisine — the obscure region on my globe. It's in the South China Sea between Thailand and Indonesia and draws its food from many surrounding countries.

Now I've got rice up to my eyeballs. One meal, albeit a big one, finds me carting home rice leftovers that crowd the lids of two full-size Styrofoam takeout containers. Another container bulges with fried rice. A few other dishes I ordered feature sides of rice in sizes rivaling a typical entree at a Chinese restaurant.

Other than the rice, I'm not excited by what I've got on the plates in front of me. What I find that night is that, while sheer novelty is destined to make this place a media darling, I'd really rather eat my own rice than make the trek to Mesa. A few dishes are good. But overall, the flavors are completely dull, or much too sour. The food is cheap, but that doesn't excuse low-grade meats. This dinner date isn't working out.

Where's the thrill in scooping platefuls from family-style dishes like Hainanese chicken, nothing more than steamed bird breast cut in thick slices and paired with rice touched up with the shadow of more chicken? Pick apart the fatty skin, chopped bone and muscle, and it's a decent chew, yet not remarkable poultry. It's better when dipped in pungent, pulpy chili sauce or sweet soy sauce, but still boring.

I'm also not sold on the salted fish with chicken fried rice, lip-curling salty dried fish tidbits tossed with carrot, onion, shallots, sprouts and egg. It's as much the taste of these dishes as the aroma — an intrusive, musky, fishy, fermented "off" note that may be authentic, but it's not appealing. An entree of sambal white pomfret (fish) actually makes me recoil, smarting from the assault of sour belacan sauce (dried shrimp paste toasted and ground with fresh chiles). And the fish is funky-looking, served whole (head, tail, bright staring eyeballs and mouth open in surprise) and drenched in the thick, dirty, burgundy-colored sauce.

Now I'm kind of wishing I'd stayed at home. My beef rendang is absolutely chewy, given that the thick wads of meat have been dried. The curry is good enough, rubbed on in a thick paste instead of a creamy sauce, but there's that vinegary, sweaty smell again.

The pathetic souls on Blind Date only get one shot with each other, but I give Bunga Raya another chance, coming back on another evening. I could cheat and order the more familiar items — satay chicken, deep-fried spareribs, teriyaki chicken or chicken lo mein. But Malaysian is the mission and, this time, dinner and I are a more compatible couple. It's not true love, but there's a chance we could be friends.

Nasi lemak is a jarring but compelling union of coconut rice, chili anchovies, egg, cucumber and peanuts that manages to be cool and spicy, sweet and tart. Fu-yu kangkung makes me want to visit the Asian market next door to the restaurant (it's closed for the evening) to pick up some of the dish's star ingredient, on-choy. The bitterish, mushroom/spinach-flavored green is stir-fried with shredded pepper in preserved bean curd sauce that's thin, slippery and mellow.

And forget rice — my new favorite starch is roti canai, an Indian pancake that's grilled golden and crispy/flaky like a croissant. I tear a strip, dunk it in accompanying chicken curry and savor every bit of the messy dish. This is more predictable curry, soaking chicken, red pepper and bay leaves in a milky broth. Too bad the poultry is so ugly, with muscle-bound gnarly knots of dark meat.

Curry mee comes closest to my dream date. I've found a startlingly good dish that's light enough to get me through August's heat wave. It's a soup of curried chicken broth stocked with egg noodles, a loaf of deep-fried tofu, eggplant, minced fish dumplings and shrimp paste-stuffed chiles (red and green; the red blister my tongue).

Bunga Raya and I struck out. But I saw a new rice steamer the other day that looked pretty cute. I think I'll take it home with me and see how that turns out. Now who's the pathetic one?

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet