Tastes of Home
With dazzlingly authentic dishes, Mamak brings the flavors of Malaysia to Orlando.
If I am introduced to no other new dishes in 2015 beyond the wonton with hot sauce at Mamak, I’ll still consider this to be a good year.
Mamak Asian Street Food is the newest addition to East Colonial Drive’s food scene, an area energized by Vietnamese banh mi shops, Chinese dim sum and pan-Asian markets. Its revamped interior is a far cry from the former inhabitants of the space, Vinh’s and Ha Long Bistro, which had both been generic neighborhood Vietnamese family restaurants.
Mamak (pronounced mah-mahk) is a dazzling change in the mode of trendy new casual restaurants popping up in urban Malaysia, with blond wood, green uplighting, a fascinating rope ceiling, and a striking communal table for 20 with yellow metal chairs bisecting the room. It’s interesting to see what has changed in the area during several generations of Asian immigrants, from conventional eateries to the recent wave of fashionably hip hotspots like global tapas bar Kasa and the Asian Latin fusion of Tako Cheena. They meld traditional food with exotic combinations and unfamiliar new offerings, and are attracting a young crowd (and young employees) along with culinary adventurers.
The Korean Mee is a noodle soup that includes shrimp, chicken, egg and veggies.
One friend, born in Singapore, took a look at Mamak’s menu and said, “This is like being home!” And if home is Southeast Asia, then this is indeed a return visit. “The restaurant is family owned,” says manager Alex Lo, “and this is the food we make for ourselves.”
Lucky family. Read the menu and be exposed to a whole new vocabulary: pasembur, a sweet potato gravy served on crispy tofu; gwa bao, a soft steamed bun filled with duck or pork; sambal, a fiery Asian salsa. Asam kari ($9) is a spiced coconut curry sauce flavored with sour tamarind and vegetables and served with shrimp, fish (the best choice) or squid. Coconut kari ($8-$8.50) is a Malay dish with the same Persian roots as Thai massaman curry, cooking chicken or beef in a savory reddish yellow gravy with potatoes.
The aforementioned wonton with hot sauce ($5.50) is a stunning little dish of steamed chicken and shrimp dumplings coated in a dark roasted peanut sauce, chili oil and a generous helping of sesame seeds, with a rich, nutty taste, good texture and pleasantly spicy finish. I would buy the sauce by the jar.
Seafood haw fun ($9.50) adds stir-fried wide rice noodles, smoky charred from a hot wok, with seafood and sliced fish paste cake. The dish is the closest thing here to Chinese-American restaurant food, and a good introduction for the new-food wary.
Mamak Asian Street Food
The Lo family has influenced the Orlando food scene in a substantial way. The parents, original owners of Le Flamboyan restaurant on South Orange Blossom Trail, produced an interesting blend of Puerto Rican and Chinese food. Their sons continue the tradition of tempting Orlando’s appetites with new tastes: Alex manages day-to-day operations at Mamak, while Allen was one of the founding partners of Hawkers on Mills Avenue.
Hawkers changed Orlando’s dining habits by introducing us to a previously untapped array of street foods from Malaysia, China and Vietnam. While the two restaurants are unconnected apart from family ties, when Mamak opened last October their offerings were quite similar. A new menu in the new year allows Mamak to shine with an exciting and original take on Malay specialties.
Taking a culinary excursion to Mamak is easier than traveling to Kuala Lumpur—but it is just as delicious.
What's in a Name?
Mamak refers to a Malaysian community with Indian Tamil roots (it is an honorific for “maternal uncle” and traditionally pronounced without the terminal “k”—but not at the restaurant). It has come to mean food stalls serving late-night tasty bits, and Malay locals are known to go “mamaking,’’ like a pub crawl but with sensational food instead of beer.