Mamak brings Malaysian food-stall culture to the forefront 

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Robert Bartlett

The fact that our happy little burg is home to not one, but two (yes, two!) Malaysian restaurants must speak to our ever-burgeoning multi-culti food scene, right? I like to think so, so kudos to you, Hawkers – and kudos to you too, Mamak, for diversifying an already diversified urban core and directing our next culinary trendwatch to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Jakarta. Indeed, the words "Asian Street Food" are emblazoned on Mamak's prominent marquee on Colonial Drive, and the restaurant appears to have both roused and resuscitated a space brooding in the demise of longtime mainstay Vinh's and the shorter-lived Ha Long Bistro.

The modernization of its interior has made the glossy-lacquered furnishings of those two Vietnamese restos a distant memory, but perhaps Mamak's most noticeable trait is an illuminating amber glow that basks the premises in a moody saturated light. As well, the rope canopy on the ceiling is cause for conversation among the restaurant's predominantly under-50 clientele, but the real foreign accents here lie in Mamak's small plates.

The restaurant's name, in fact, is a reference to Malaysia's Indo-Muslim community, seen as the progenitors of the peninsula's food-stall phenomenon. Fitting, then, that we started our meal with roti canai ($3), a dish of the popular unleavened Indian bread accompanied with a rich and spicy curry. We also employed the exceptionally fluffy roti to sop up the juices of stir-fried cod in black bean sauce ($6.50), an absolute favorite of ours. Now before you go pooh-poohing lettuce wraps ($7.50) as ordinary, sample the ones here with flavorful roast duck; you won't be disappointed. If you run out of lettuce, they'll give you more at no extra charge. You'll appreciate the crispy skin on the roast pork belly ($6), but the dry meat not so much. Charred beef bulgogi ($6) ably represents the Korean peninsula, but the dish we order every time without fail is the stir-fried green beans ($5.50). Order a plate and you'll find yourself pecking away at those lustrous legumes through the course of your meal. Rest assured, they will get finished.

From the wok, the familiar flavors of char kway teow ($8.50) – rice noodles fried with shrimp, chicken, eggs, bean sprouts and chives – make it a must for less adventurous diners. If you're up for a noodle soup, you won't find a heartier one than the kari mee ($8.50). Billed as "Malaysia's most popular," it's easy to see why with its slices of hard-boiled egg resting atop a curry broth teeming with egg noodles, chicken, shrimp, bok choy and fried bean curd. Aesthetics play as much of a role in this soup as the ingredients, so trust me when I say this is one pretty tasty noodle bowl.

Almost as pretty is ice kacang ($5) – a bowl of shaved ice and sweet condensed milk enveloping red beans, creamy corn, grass jelly and palm nuts, drizzled with simple syrup and topped with roasted peanuts. For a more substantial ending, the chocolate banana roti ($6.50) will leave you with that weighed-down feeling.

Two points of contention: 1) Serving oolong and jasmine tea in diner mugs just seems wrong; and 2) sugar cane juice, a beverage they've never served in my four visits, needs to be taken off the menu.

Orlando can't compare to a sultry southeast Asian metropolis, but Mamak brings a semblance of the intoxicating pulse felt on Kuala Lumpur's dark, alluring and bustling boulevards indoors, to the forefront of our culinary consciousness and into the limelight.

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