Mamak is worth standing in line for. Bob and I waited 50 minutes for what is actually rather ordinary Malaysian food. But you can’t get these dishes just anywhere, and here, they’re done to perfection. I’d call this restaurant perfect in every way my single visit allowed me to experience. Let’s start with the entertainment on offer…
After standing in line for 30 or 40 minutes, you finally creep up to the glass wall of the kitchen. Two roti-makers work like machines at their stainless steel counter, stretching small balls of dough by flinging them over their heads until they look like giant, translucent handkerchiefs. You just know one is going to become a kite and sail onto the head of a grill cook. Or one will rip and fly into shreds. They never do. After the final toss, the dough lands on the counter stretched into the size of a sheet of newspaper.
That’s when the roti is given it’s specific form. It might be quickly folded into an air-filled pillow and simply thrown on the grill, where cooks hover over the rotis, pressing them, flipping them, and rushing them off to drooling diners. Or the dough might first get a sprinkling of red onions. Bob and I ate rotis often when we lived in Singapore. In their most basic form, they’re simple flat breads served hot off the grill with a bowl of curry sauce for dipping.
A filled (and filling) version is called murtabak. An egg is broken onto the stretched dough, which is then topped with a smear of curry sauce, a toss of onion shreds, and possibly shredded chicken, mutton, or sardines. The gossamer dough is folded into a many-layered square, cooked on the grill, and served steaming hot with a bowl of spicy curry sauce. Perfection! Mamak serves murtabak. I wish I could have tried it, but we ordered other items.
I’d gotten a menu to look at while in line, so we’d be ready to order right away. That’s the one tiny improvement that could speed Mamak’s turnover just a tad: menus outside so diner’s can use the waiting time to peruse the offerings.
When you finally enter the restaurant, all primed for a roti (but which one???), the fragrance of baking bread slays you. The urgency of the cooks and waiters increases your heart rate and your stomach announces its presence and desires. Luckily, Mamak is fast! Your order is in and out in moments.
Mamak cooks a small selection of Malaysian dishes (most of which are traditional street foods) which keeps the menu from overwhelming people unfamiliar with the cuisine. They do a variety of rotis, two kinds of satay, several curries and stir-fries, and spicy-fried chicken. There’s the classic nasi lemak, which is fragrant coconut rice with condiments (which we ordered), and a couple of fried noodle dishes.
We also ordered rojak. I’ve had it many times in Singapore, but never like Mamak’s. Typically a salad of crisp and crunchy fruits and vegetables, julienned yambean and cucumber, fried tofu, and prawns, it’s coated with a spicy peanut sauce and garnished with hardboiled eggs. Mamak’s version was heavy on the sauce, sweet, tall, and… delicious.
Crisp and fluffy roti cania looked to be the most popular item on the menu. So simple, yet so satisfying. You lick your finger to pick up every last flake of the toasty bread.
The rich and exotic roti planta requires a time-consuming process. Twenty or so little dabs of butter are spaced out along one edge of the stretched dough sheet. The sheet is then rolled into a lumpy, air-filled snake, the buttery dots along its length like undigested mice. The fragile tube is then carefully coiled like a sleek-skinned cobra, and set on the grill to crisp, melt, sizzle, and brown.
Mamak also offers a variety of Malaysian tea and coffee drinks, and two typical desserts: ice kachang and chendol. I ADORE chendol, a complicated ice dessert composed of many ingredients. Instead of trying it here though, Bob and I chose to go next door to the Taiwanese dessert shop called Meet Fresh. Yeah, funny name! I got “handmade taro-balls #4” with peanuts (soft), pearls, and red beans. I could have ordered it hot, but chose to have it over ice. Bob got mango sago coconut soup.
Taro-balls #4 was nice, but it’s no chendol. Come to think of it, chendol needs a post of its own. I dream of chendol, but only a certain kind. It must be topped with one particular fruit. I will tell you… soon!
In addition to the selection and quality of its food, Mamak gets a gold star for speed. Our meal arrived eight minutes after ordering it. When we left, the line was as long as when we got into it an hour and a half earlier. And guess what? After we finished dessert next door? Yep, the Mamak’s line was even longer.
On Goulburn at Dixon in Haymarket, on the edge of Sydney’s Chinatown, Mamak is a winner.