Taste good? Yes, very good, but…

Yesterday night, in my continuing quest to cross off every restaurant on the current Sietsema list, two friends joined my girlfriend and I in Elmhurst, Queens – our destination was Samwongahk, on Broadway.  When we got there, however, we noticed that what was purportedly a diner-turned-noodlery had been converted to a steam table dishes-over-rice joint, and given a new name.  Hey, I guess we crossed it off!

Fortunately, Elmhurst, like its neighbor, Jackson Heights, offers a nearly limitless variety of Asian restaurants to choose from.  In easy walking distance from the eastern end of the Elmhurst Av. R/V stop were Singas Pizza (Indian-leaning), Thai, two Vietnamese restaurants, two Chinese steam tables, and a branch of the Malaysian chain Panang – after casing the neighborhood carefully, we opted for Taste Good, another Malaysian restaurant just off the Broadway strip on 45th Av.

Why did we choose it?  Well, a big reason was the Sietsema review in the window – Taste Good was the number 2 Asian restaurant on his 2002 list.  We had other good fortune, though, as far as recommendations were concerned: a friendly chowhound reader stopped on his way in and, as we were waiting for one of my friends to arrive, expounded upon his favorite dishes.

When someone stops on the street in NYC to offer an unsolicited opinion, and they’re not totally crazy, it’s generally a good sign.  So, after noshing on the pickle plate that arrived when we first sat down, we ordered, and included a couple of his dish ideas: salt and pepper squid ($9) and sambal shrimp ($15).  I was responsible for two orders of roti canai ($2 each) and a plate of beef rendang ($10) and my friends suggested the tahu emas (fried tofu blocks with sweet-hot sauce, $5) and the eggplant in shrimp paste sauce known as terung belacan ($8).

Sietsema’s review (conveniently also located under the glass layer of the table to my right) gave us a few more options.  Malaysian salad ($4.25), a bed of lotus root and cucumbers with fried shrimp crackers (actually good, for once), was smothered in a not-too-sweet peanut sauce.  Nasi lemak ($4.50) is a portion of coconut rice, adding sides of fried anchovy, boiled egg, peanuts, cubed cucumber, and a creamy bone-in chicken and potato curry (similar to the sauce part of the roti canai).

Of the dishes, the group’s favorites were absolutely the roti, rendang, and salt and pepper squid.  The roti was praised for its lack of greasiness and the spicy yet flavorful curry accompaniment.  The rendang was alternately chewy and tender, depending on the bite, but was flavored perfectly and stewed beyond reproach (all day, according to our new chowhounder friend).

I’ve had a lot of fried seafood, and it was with great surprise that I found the fried squid to have the lightest and most flavorful batter – beating even the sainted clam strips at Max’s in Wellfleet.  Salty, with just the right amount of grease, and helped by some kind of pico-de-gallo-like accoutrement, it was extremely satisfying.  The squid itself was a little on the chewy side, but not so much as to be disgusting.

I also want to sing the praises of my other favorites – the Malaysian salad and its mysteriously spiced peanut sauce were refreshing and delicious, and I was a big fan of the sweetened rice plus topping idea behind the nasi lemak (different textures as well as different flavors make for interesting eating).  The sweet-hot chili sauce also made the soft, fresh tofu blocks a particular treat.

After the meal, and after a long conversation with Helen, the owner, and our chowhound friend (he was convinced I was a fellow native Brooklynite and of Italian extraction, for some reason), we left the place feeling satisfied – my girlfriend even declared it her favorite of the restaurants we’ve tried together, so far.  Helen seemed genuinely interested in our opinions of her food, and it’s the kind of place where I can easily see becoming a regular, as our new friend had already.  (She even told us that Samwongahk had been sold for $70,000 – a princely sum in this part of Queens, I’m sure.)

Of course, there’s always the possibility for something going horribly wrong later, and, for one of our friends, it did – the future doctor among us complained of food-poisoning-like symptoms five hours after dinner.  While it seems unlikely, given that we all shared, it’s not out of the question – the shrimp and eggplant, coincidentally my least favorite two dishes, came out last, and I barely tasted them before declaring myself stuffed.  He, on the other hand, had quite a bit more of the two.

I was already wondering why Taste Good had gone from a prominent place on Sietsema’s 2001 list, and #2 on the 2002 list, to missing-in-action on the 2005 list – perhaps the odd case of bad food?  Nonetheless, three of us were very satisfied – we couldn’t finish all the food we had ordered, and if we had avoided the mediocre shrimp and the ehh eggplant, the check ($20 each with tip, shrimp included) would have been even lower.  I’m sure we’ll be back – probably without my med school buddy, though.

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