Malaysia is a country of vast and diverse cultures, all marrying to create one united cuisine. The nation's food borrows and combines elements of Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, Filipino, and Indian menus, creating a robust flavor profile. The use of spices is generous, and fat is celebrated. Malaysian food offers myriad bold tastes, and the menu is dense with curries, meats and noodles. While there are features of healthy items like sautéed greens and steamed fish, most dishes lean towards the heavier side.
My love affair began when I was traveling through Asia post-college. When I ate my first Malaysian meal, it tasted like something I'd had before, yet was unlike anything else I'd ever eaten. The dishes and flavors seemed familiar, but there was a different personal touch to each item. My fondness of the cuisine most likely stemmed from my affinity for sweetness. Everything from curries to roti tastes sweeter. The heavy use of coconut milk has much to do with it. There's still the heat associated with Indian or Thai cuisine, but the punch isn't as overbearing.
When I returned to Texas, there still wasn't much Malaysian to be found during that time. While on a visit to Houston a few years ago, my cousin introduced me to the excellent Malaysian restaurant, Banana Leaf. Back in Dallas, I searched for an equivalent, but was met with barren results. Recently, however, I'd heard some rumblings of a developing Malaysian food scene in certain suburbs in Dallas. As of last week, I learned of Plano's Blue Ginger Garden from Airon Peralta at the website Made with Air. While it's definitely now on my "to-eat" list, there was another restaurant I had to visit first.
Secret Recipe in Carrollton has been on my radar for quite some time, but I could never make the commitment to driving 20 plus miles from my apartment to the restaurant. The restaurant's name didn't help, motivationally speaking. There also was always some confusion on my part on whether Secret Recipe was a true Malaysian restaurant or if it was -- as the restaurant self-labels -- an "Asian bistro." On New Year's Day, I decided to take the plunge and find out once and for all.
Contrary to some Yelp posts I read, the restaurant offers their separate Malaysian menu daily, not just on the weekends. Yes, Secret Recipe has two separate menus. Asian fusion dominates the main menu while a second menu is entirely dedicated to Malaysian fare. Although some things on the main menu (Mandarin ribs) looked tempting, ultimately I eschewed the spring rolls and sesame chickens and stuck to the impressively comprehensive Malaysian options.
Many items are listed by their Malaysian names and with no description, so pictures on the menu, as well as recommendations from the staff, are helpful. The setting is casual, which is reflected in the prices. Orders are placed at the counter, but the food is brought out to your table. The afternoon's diverse crowd of diners -- from Indian families to Malay-Chinese families -- was representative of the eclectic nature of Malaysian cuisine. The best of many culinary worlds appear on the menu. Stewed vinaigrette pork is similar to Filipino adobo. Flat noodles are representative of Cantonese cuisine. Of course, there are the curries and roti, but the best of all is Hainanese chicken and rice.
Hainanese chicken and rice originates from the southern Chinese province of Hainan, and although it can be found everywhere from Singapore to Vietnam, it is very closely associated with Malaysian cuisine. It's an immensely popular dish of chicken boiled in various stocks, served up with rice that is cooked in a fatty chicken stock. Depending on the country, accompanying sauces can vary from the requisite plain old soy sauce to salt, pepper and lime mixtures.
Secret Recipe offers a crispy roasted version along with the traditional boiled version. We opted for the roasted chicken. (Although, the more accurate label is fried roasted chicken.) The skin of the chicken was decadently crispy, and the slight amount of grease wasn't unbearable. The meat was tender and seasoned well. The rice also was well executed, although I can imagine some purists would want a fattier, more yellow end result. I appreciated that the flavors of the stock were apparent in the rice but it didn't coat my lips with grease, as is the norm when I've eaten the dish in the past. The slightly sweet dipping sauce of lime, chili, sugar and ginger lightened up the dish a bit. Second to the Hainanese chicken and rice, the water spinach sautéed in sambal was the other best dish of the afternoon.
There aren't many vegetables listed on the menu, but there are several variations of water spinach dishes offered. Ultimately, the sambal sautee version won out over a cuttlefish with water spinach. Because of its long, fibrous stems, water spinach has more of an al-dente bite than regular spinach. The greens also have a distinctively subtle woodsy flavor that stands up well to garlic and sauces. Secret Recipe's sambal, or chili sauce, was both spicy and sweet, packing a light punch of heat without overwhelming the greens. The Hainanese roasted chicken and the water spinach were good enough to make me consider a return trip, long drive and all.
Also good on our visit was the restaurant's roti with curry dipping sauce. I only wish there had been more of it. For $2.95, the roti, or flat bread, was awfully small. Portions aren't generally very big at Secret Recipe, but the size of the roti made it all the more apparent. It did, however, have very good flavor and a wonderful chewy texture. The chicken curry dipping sauce, sweet and rich from coconut milk, could have been a bit spicier to offset all the sweetness. Still, it had nice, well-rounded curry seasoning.
Both a beef flat noodle and a shrimp mie goreng were adequate but not spectacular. The two noodle dishes boasted intense flavors, but it was the textures that were a bit off. The beef flat noodle is prepared better at many other restaurants in DFW. The slices of beef were thin and yielded tough bites of meat. The noodles also were cut into very thin, small slices, so the customary pleasant chewiness of flat noodles was nonexistent. As for the mie goreng, it's the pad Thai or lo mein of Indonesian and Malaysian fare. Secret Recipe's mie goreng was overcooked to the point of mushiness. The use of broken up spaghetti-like noodles ruined an otherwise flavorful dish. The pieces of fried tofu, fish cake and shrimp were nice, but the dish's consistency was its downfall.
The extensive menu is deserving of further exploration, but the experience of dining at Secret Recipe misses a certain something that would elevate it from being a merely good restaurant to a truly memorable one. Is it a must go-to? Compared with a restaurant like Banana Leaf, I'd have to say no, but for someone who has never had Malaysian food, it's worth investigating. The prices are reasonable, for the most part, but it's a far drive for small portions if you're not already around the neighborhood. If your happen to be there, though, the roast chicken and rice is definitely a must-try.
Secret Recipe Asian Bistro 1404 W. Hebron Parkway, No. 103 Carrollton 972-394-0999
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