Taste Good
53 Bayard Street
Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.;
Friday to Sunday 11-11:30 212.513.0818, 212.676.0368
Appetizers, $2.25 to $7.95; Main courses, $4.95 to $14.95

Finding Malaysian food that ‘Taste[s] Good’

By Lauren Fouda

Having missed a meal -— unheard of in my universe -— and in a hurry to get to an Uptown class, I stumbled into the oasis of Taste Good, an unassuming Malaysian restaurant in Chinatown. Five minutes later and only $5 lighter, I emerged into the chaos of Bayard St. protectively clutching an order of mee siam. Blissfully unaware of the tourists deliberating between dim sum houses, the clouds threatening to burst before I reached the subway, and my academic responsibilities, I tackled my noodle dish with enough zeal and reverence to make passers-by, mouths watering, stop and stare in my wake.

A veteran of on-the-go eating, with a repertoire ranging from fruit to pastries to pizza, this mee siam was a challenge I didn’t mind for a minute. Deft chopstick maneuvers are required, of course, but it’s worth the balancing act to savor this wok-fried vermicelli, redolent with an invisibly spicy aroma and brimming with gems like shrimp, tofu, bean sprouts, and perfect slices of egg. The delicate spritz of a lime wedge is revelatory, hinting at the great acidity counterplay at work.

After dreaming about this transcendent dish for days, I returned triumphantly to sample more Malaysian wonders. Although the cuisine is influenced by India (the menu includes roti canai, an Indian pancake, as well as variations on Mussaman curry), Thailand (tom yum soup, the tongue-tantalizing lemongrass and coriander broth studded with shrimp), and China (fish head soup with sour plums, for the adventurous eater), Malaysia has an inimitable cuisine all its own.

The diverse menu is awash with coconut milk and tangy, sweet and spicy flavors and is heavy on the soups, from bean curd and pork to Singaporean curried noodles in broth.

Unlike most Chinatown outposts, Taste Good is curiously inefficient: service is spotty and, unless you’re standing at the counter waiting for your takeout with a pleading look in your eye, they may forget about half of your order until they’re gently reminded. Luckily, the whimsical decor makes up for any attacks of impatience. The room’s center pillar has been transformed into a geometric tree, with boughs radiating throughout the room and strung with flowers and birdcages. All this gratuitous color splashes across the ceiling, disrupting the soothing, light wood motif.

But of course, the main attraction is the food itself. An appetizer of tahu goreng, or tofu with peanut sauce, arrives as a series of curled deep-fried bean curd vessels, crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside, transporting mouthward a julienne of carrots and bean sprouts topped with a chunky, flavorful slather of peanut chili sauce. Even for those who don’t love tofu, the nutty, spicy relish could brighten almost anything.

Gravitating once again to the noodle section of the menu, we selected charkway teow, which is apparently to Malaysia what pad thai is to Thailand. Malaysia’s famous dish, though, is a plate of large, flat rice noodles tossed in a rich, well-balanced sauce, sparkling with shrimp, squid, fish cake, bean sprouts, and chives. The slightly chewy noodles, combined with the meaty heft of added seafood, adds up to home cooked comfort with unforeseen complexity of texture and taste.

As far as the meat selection goes, a standout is the beef rendang, which arrives inconspicuously on the table and certainly doesn’t dazzle with appearances. But upon first bite, the subtle spices and lemongrass perfume explode in the mouth with the pungency and satisfaction of the highlight of the menu. Reminiscent of Bengali home cooking, the beef rendang is even improved by the rough cucumber relish languishing on the side of the plate, drenched in sauce.

Since that whole SARS epidemic has everyone too scared to make the trek to southeast Asia, there’s no need to worry about a dearth of quality Malaysian food in New York: Chinatown is a good substitute. If you’re ever lost in the maze of Chinatown’s side streets, hungry and confused about your myriad meal selections, hopefully you can find your way to Taste Good. The name says it all.


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