When Karen Yee and Evans Fu became the new owners of Royal East, a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge near Central Square, they wanted to add Malaysian fare to their repertoire, but decided not to do it all at once. For the last three years, this growing part of the menu has felt like a best-kept secret.
The wife-and-husband duo knew that the eatery, in operation for nearly 30 years, had loyal customers who counted on the place for classic American-Chinese favorites. So they started by adding just a few Southeast Asian curries and rice dishes, cooked by Fung Chan, the same chef in charge of Malaysian dishes at the couple’s former Back Bay restaurant, Island Hopper.
Malaysian-born Yee says that from the beginning, international students from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore often requested special dishes. “They would come in and say, ‘Hey Aunty, could you make nasi lemak for me?’” (Nasi lemak is a Malaysian coconut rice with anchovies.) That’s how many dishes came to be added to the menu.
Roti canai ($5) arrives at the table as a flaky pancake, tented loosely to resemble a handkerchief, served alongside a cup of red curry. Tear off portions of the pliable fried bread and dip them into the rich coconut milk-based sauce. It’s a delicious way to begin a meal, as is poh piah ($6) Malaysian-style fresh rolls, two flour wrappers stuffed with julienned jicama, crispy bits of tofu, egg, and lettuce, drizzled with hoisin, mild chile sauce, and topped with crunchy fried shallots.
The menu, with more than 150 dishes on offer, is voluminous. More than half are American-Chinese, Sichuan, and Cantonese favorites. Malaysian, Thai, and Indonesian dishes comprise the rest.
When the traditional Indonesian salad gado gado ($10) is set down, it’s clear that someone in the kitchen is skilled with a cleaver. Julienned cucumber and more jicama provide a refreshing bed for sliced hard-cooked egg and crispy tofu, topped with a generous ladle of mild peanut dressing. Thai favorite tom yum soup ($5) with lemongrass, mushrooms, and snappy whole shrimp, packs assertive chile heat.
Dishes can be delightfully rustic. One evening, in a special of steamed scallops on the half shell ($12 for two), each is topped with a dainty tangle of glass noodles and slivered ginger. Squeamish diners might object to having to trim away the gills and organs of the shellfish, all left intact, but adventurers are rewarded with true-to-the-ocean flavor. Littleneck clams in black bean sauce ($11) offers a tamer option, as does nasi goreng ($11) a generous platter of rice fried with shrimp, egg, and whole basil leaves. Also straightforward and satisfying are char kueh teow ($10), flat rice noodles stir-fried with sweet soy sauce, and a platter of Hainanese chicken ($15), half a bird cleavered into slender pieces and served cool, with a ginger-scallion dipping sauce.
All the curries are made from Yee’s mother’s recipes. For beef rendang ($15), shallots, ginger, galangal, turmeric, and lemongrass are pounded into a paste along with a little sugar, stir-fried to deepen flavors, then long-simmered with the meat, resulting in a dish that is both filling and fragrant. It’s excellent with chicken rice ($2), fluffy grains simmered in stock (plain jasmine rice is also available).
One night, an experienced server graciously guides us through menu options. On another, a young man is flummoxed by our questions and seems reluctant to get a manager. Request that saucy plates be changed out for new ones.
On a weeknight, a solo diner enjoys a glossy plate of General Gau’s chicken. At another table, biotech workers dig into Peking duck while their server assembles moo shu pork tableside. The rest of place is populated with groups of Asian students, happy that “Aunty’s” homestyle Malaysian fare is a no longer a secret.
782 Main St. (near Central Square), Cambridge, 617-661-1660, www.royaleast.com. All major credit cards except Discover. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers, soups, salads $5 - $10. Noodles and rice $7 - $12. Meat and seafood $10 - $19 (most dishes under $18).
11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Liquor Wine and beer.
What to order Roti canai (pancake with curry sauce), poh piah (fresh rolls), gado gado (tofu and vegetable salad), nasi goreng (fried rice), Hainanese chicken, beef rendang (curried beef).
Ellen Bhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.