Dining: Two You’d Never Find
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The problem? These are tiny restaurants, seating about a dozen people. More than 111,000 local residents at least glance at the pages of this magazine every month. If an infinitesimal percentage of them—point zero zero one percent—show up at once, these places are full.
That’s why the people who mentioned them to me cautioned against writing about them. They worry if I do so, they’ll never get a seat again.
However, truth will out. If I don’t live up to my responsibilities and tip you off, someone else will. Besides, restaurants like these, full of food and fervor, with proprietors who have a flair for hospitality, deserve to be celebrated.
Green Door Cafe
1145 Maunakea St.
Tues.-Sat. lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5:30-8 p.m.
Street parking, no credit cards
A friend who’d lived in Malaysia tipped me to the Green Door Cafe. He went on and on about the authentic belacan, a potent Malaysian shrimp paste, in some of the dishes. “Whenever I eat there, I get home and my wife says, What the hell have you been eating?’”
This, and the fact that he discouraged me from writing about it—“You’ll probably ruin the place”—kept me from following up immediately.
Then one day, two friends and I were in Chinatown, walking from Little Village, which was full, to Cafe Oriente, which we hoped wasn’t, when we stumbled upon the Green Door Cafe. It’s not easy to find: its address is on Maunakea Street, but it’s physically located on Pauahi. The doors—indeed the whole tiny storefront and the interior walls—are painted a distinctive shade of green, somewhere between a Granny Smith apple and a calamansi lime.
The sign said Open, but the door was locked. We had to knock. A Chinese woman, who we later learned was the proprietor and sole employee, Betty Pang, almost reluctantly opened the door. We walked into Wonderland.
Not a physical wonderland: four plain pedestal tables, a dozen metal folding chairs, a free-standing air conditioner, a cluttered kitchen counter with the menu handwritten in two colors on a Dry Erase board. The menu was filled with Singaporean and Malaysian items.
We had little idea what to expect, but life’s an adventure. We just started ordering. Red chili jumbo prawns. Nonya pork tenderloin. Crispy pomfret. Spicy Singaporean long beans.
Pang repaired to her tiny kitchen, but reemerged to tell us we hadn’t ordered the chicken and dried fruit soup. Her solution: She brought us a bowl. “Try it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay. Why should I charge for something you don’t like?”
We liked it. Even before we tasted it. One whiff and the aromatics rose out of the broth—sherry, ginger, onion, spices, fruit. There were generous bite-sized pieces of chicken, and dried cherries and a small dried fruit. Pang called it keichi. The fruit seemed to add flavor rather than sweetness.
The prawns came in a red chili sauce thickened with egg, so delicious we scooped the sauce up with roti canai, a flat bread hot off the grill. The shrimp came with heads and shells on. Too much shell for us to eat, so we resorted to pulling off the heads and deshelling them, a messy business with all the sauce. Pang immediately brought us a finger bowl. (The next time I came, she made me the same dish with shelled shrimp. It was not as flavorful that way, she said, but she wanted to adapt to her customers.)
The crispy pomfret wasn’t really pomfret, it was papio, done in batter, a simple dish that would hardly challenge anyone’s Western tastebuds. Not so the Singaporean long beans, which were flavored with the authentic belacan shrimp paste, an acquired taste.
Still, no one has to acquire a taste for the pork tenderloin nonya. “What’s nonya?” I asked Pang. “It means local girl,” said Pang.