In a town packed to the brim with Asian joints–ranging from pretentious ramen bars to cheap take outs–the diverse and exotic foods of Southeast Asia have been largely overlooked. With a geographic proximity to China and India as well as a history of European colonialism, the region boasts some of the original “fusion” cuisines.
Four Spoon writers dish out advice on their go-to spots for delicious and authentic Southeast Asian grub.
1. Burmese: Café Mingala
Sitting at the crossroads of China, India and Thailand, the little-known Burmese cuisine has qualities from each of its neighbors. In Manhattan, Cafe Mingala offers a delicious taste of Burma for adventurous eaters. Despite a plain and inconspicuous storefront, the interior’s soft yellow lights and vivid Burmese murals make a cozy setting for groups, families or even casual dates.
To start, try the green tea leaf salad, or lephet thoke. Mingala’s version mixes cabbage, lettuce, coriander, green tea leaves, toasted sesame seeds, and lemon twists, but forgets the traditional micro-shrimps. Other appetizers include ngar-phai-kyaw, similar to Thai fishcakes, and shan tofu kyaw, fried yellow bean curd with chili tamarind sauce.
Main dishes include the popular mohinga–thin rice noodles with minced fish, lemongrass, boiled eggs in fish broth–and the own-no kow swear (coconut chicken noodle soup). The spiciness of the any dish can be altered based on personal preference.
While Mingala’s dishes lack all the proper ingredients for a 100% authentic Burmese experience, it’s certainly a good stepping stone for anyone who wants to explore the understated cuisine. The restaurant is generally quiet but livens up around 7 pm. There are only two waiters though, so service can be slower during peak hours. – Angie Oo
Tip: If you’re on a tight budget, Cafe Mingala offers lunch specials for $6.95.
Address: 1393 2nd Avenue (between 72nd & 73rd)
Hours of Operation: Mon-Thu, Sun 11:30am-11pm; Fri-Sat 11:30am-midnight
2. Filipino: Maharlika
Philippine cuisine draws inspiration from Spanish, Malaysian and Chinese flavors, but has a taste uniquely its own. Getting your Filipino fill in Manhattan is tough, but the East Village boasts some of the best options including Maharlika, a relative newcomer to the scene offering a menu described as “Filipino Moderno.”
Proud of its heritage, Maharlika serves recognizable favorites–from comforting pancit bihon (rice vermicelli with chicken) to mouth-watering silog breakfast plates (meat, egg and garlic fried rice), and of course sizzling sisig (boiled and fried pig’s head and liver). If you’re feeling a little adventurous, try the balut, or fertilized duck egg.
Instead of replicating your grandmother’s Filipino cooking, Maharlika fuses traditional flavors with modern tastes for unique creations like the beer battered spam fries and the “Filipino Fried Chicken and Ube Waffles.” Don’t expect to leave feeling anything but full–all the dishes are served in generously hearty portions (what else can you expect from Filipinos?). – Travis Tan
Tip: In traditional Filipino fashion, make sure you order your lumpia (Filipino-style spring rolls) first, it is a must to start with.
Address: 111 1st Avenue (at 7th)
Hours of Operation: Mon-Sun 11am-4pm; Mon-Fri 5pm-11pm; Sat 6pm-midnight; Sun 6pm-10pm
3. Malaysian: Malay Restaurant
Malaysia’s diverse demographic–including Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous–is reflected in its cuisine. In Malaysia, the best food is scattered across the country, with the best satay in one city and the best nasi lemak (coconut rice with curry) in a town miles away. The mom-and-pop owned Malay Restaurant has brought these diverse dishes under one roof for over 20 years. For the city’s Malaysian immigrants, the taste of memories from home is well-worth the trip to Flushing, Queens.
The multitude of appetizers includes satay (beef or chicken barbecued over a charcoal grill), roti canai (a flatbread for dipping) and popiah (Malaysian warm summer rolls). In the entree section, one-of-a-kind beef rendang (dry Indonesian-influenced curry made without coconut milk) has a powerful spicy kick and a savory sweet body that lends itself well to hot, steamed rice. Other favorites include the Hainanese chicken–served with buttery rice, cucumbers and a special soy sauce–and the BBQ skate fish, seared crisp and served with an onion chili sauce.
Finish your meal with ais kacang, a shaved ice dessert including sweet red beans, peanuts, jellies. If you’re feeling adventurous, top the shaved ice with durian. – Lily Chin
Tips: The roti canai’s curry-like dipping sauce differs from the standard curry–it’s milder and tailored to a general palate. Also, there are many Chinese-influenced dishes in the restaurant because the owners are Chinese Malaysians.
Address: 135-17 40th Road, Flushing, NY 11354
Hours of Operation: Mon-Sat 11am-11pm; Sun 11am-10pm
4. Vietnamese: Pho Bang
Vietnamese cuisine–a blend of native, Chinese and French–is a relatively recent trend in Manhattan, with only a handful of shops offering standout pho. The popular noodle soup is usually prepared by simmering beef in a blend of herbs and spices–including cinnamon, star anise and cardamom–for several hours, then ladling the broth over rice noodles with cilantro, mint and Thai basil.
Pho Bang in Little Italy is a no-frills destination for Vietnamese cheap eats. With just a few old photos of rural Vietnam serving as decor, the unassuming shop dishes out piping hot bowls of pho with the traditional choices of meats including round of eye steak, brisket, tendons and omosa. For beginners, I would recommend the pho tai (#12), served with thinly sliced, rare beef.
Also on offer is a personal favorite, banh cuon (Vietnamese rice crepe with ground pork) and specialities like the bun cary ga, chicken curry over rice vermicelli, and banh mi bo kho, a gravy-like beef stew with a hot French baguette for dipping. – Dan Dao
Tip: If you’re not in the mood for the noodle soup, Tu Do Restaurant on Bowery boasts an extensive selection of alternative dishes, including the popular Vietnamese and Cambodian ‘banh xeo’ or a savory pancake.
Address: 157 Mott St (between Broome and Grand)
Hours of Operation: Daily 10am-10pm