Just up the hill from the International District, crammed into a tiny strip mall on the corner of 12th Ave. and S. Main, is one of the best culinary adventures you can find in town – the Malay Satay Hut. Malaysian cuisine is virtually nonexistent in Seattle, so if you haven’t tried it yet, you’re in for a wonderful surprise. Blending Indian, Chinese and Thai styles of cooking and spices, you never know exactly what you’re going to get, but chances are it will be tasty (and HOT).
Indeed, half the fun of the Malay Satay Hut is ordering blindly off the inscrutable menu – cryptic descriptions like Spicy Silver Noodle Soup or Buddhist Yam Pot are accompanied by tiny photos begging to be sampled. I can’t even identify some of the ingredients in these dishes (what exactly is this particular “salted fish” I’m eating?), but it keeps me coming back. Chef Sam Yoo cooks with a perfect balance of spice and flavor that often defies description (I blame myself; when it comes to Eastern cooking and ingredients, my knowledge and vocabulary is desperately lacking).
Even though I do like exploring the menu, there are obviously some greatest hits that should not be missed. For starters – Yoo’s famous roti canai with a side of curry and potatoes. Pulling apart the flaky, fried flatbread, dipping it into the savory hot curry and then stuffing it into your face is a transcendental experience. People write odes and sing hymns to this roti. My other absolute favorite on the menu is the Dry Curry Vegie Tofu. I’m pretty sure this is the only restaurant I’ve ever seen prepare a dish “dry curry style”, and I’m pretty sure I still don’t know what that means. But the tofu is soft and moist, and the mélange of vegetables (long green beans, onions, baby corn, straw mushrooms, whole cloves of garlic and okra) are stir fried perfection. The entire dish is coated with a thick, sticky curry which tastes slightly grainy to the tongue, and has a deceptive, cumulative heat (you’ll be wiping your brow by the time you finish). Note that nearly everything on the menu can be ordered with this dry curry – chicken, beef, lamb, shrimp, crab, fish head.
I must confess that the actual satays at the Malay Satay Hut are not particularly earth shattering. The chicken in particular is lightly coated with yellow curry, grilled up and served with a traditional peanut sauce for dipping. I know a lot of people swear by these satays, but they honestly don’t do much for me. Maybe I’m just not into meat on a stick. On the other hand, I love the spicy and pungent Belachan string beans served with prawns, or the sweet mango tofu salad with slices of crisp red, green and yellow peppers. And there are a million things on the menu I’ve yet to try (next up: black pepper crab and Hokkien Mee).
The restaurant space itself has a fair number of tables, but it can still get pretty packed in the evening. The walls are lined with bamboo, and in the center of the restaurant is the eponymous hut which serves as a wait station and cashier stand. You should also know that it’s not necessarily cheap eats, although they do have great lunch specials if you happen to be near Little Saigon during your break. And while I do enjoy eating there from time to time (the waitstaff is friendly and responsive), this is one of my very favorite places to take food to go on any given night of the week. And like most curries, it usually tastes even better the next day. Go check it out.