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Friday, August 1, 2014

Enjoy Lusty Seafood Stew From Singapore in Menlo Park

Posted By on Fri, Aug 1, 2014 at 2:00 PM

click to enlarge Shiok's Laksa - TREVOR FELCH
  • Trevor Felch
  • Shiok's Laksa
On the spectrum of Asian noodle soups, laksa doesn’t get much attention compared to the likes of ramen, pho, and Hong Kong’s wonton- and noodle-filled bowls. Unfortunately that’s probably because you don’t find many Singapore restaurants, period.

And that seems very strange knowing the importance of food to Singapore’s culture. After all, this is a city-state where many adults greet each other with, “Have you eaten?” the same way we might ask, “How are you?”

One of the few spots in the Bay Area to sample laksa Singaporean cuisine is Shiok, a comfortable midsized restaurant hidden from the main commercial stretch of Menlo Park. Shiok’s dishes boast the vibrant spice and funk that  you’d find at Singapore’s famed food hawker centers, which serve as de-facto town meeting halls and dining rooms for neighborhood  residents. 

Each hawker center boasts anywhere between 50 and more than 300 different stalls. There, you can close your eyes and follow the powerful smells and sounds for your meal choice. Almost every stall specializes in one, maximum two dishes. Based on my experience, every row of a dozen vendors will certainly include steaming bowls of seafood-filled laksa.

Though laksa calls Malaysia its birthplace and it’s an iconic dish in Indonesia, Singapore also deserves the right to call it a national dish. The noodles and fillings can differ slightly version to version. A similar broth is the cohesive hallmark of all these laksas. Shiok does a very faithful version ($10.99) that deftly balances elements of sea with rustic notes that create a soup with balanced thickness and balanced flavor.

Coconut milk functions as the base, fortified by curry for the key spice dimension without being punishingly hot. Toppings from land and sea vary. Shiok’s include head and tail-on prawns, moist chicken on the bone, tofu blocks, bean sprouts, and sliced hard-boiled eggs scattered about. Dried shrimp add a subtle crunch and a not-so-subtle umami-boost, like salt lends to caramel. This surf and turf combination with fragrant spice makes me draw comparisons to both a curry scented paella and a bouillabaisse with a much fuller and more riveting broth.

In lieu of bread to stop up the last drops, I highly recommend stealing some of the rice from the Hainan chicken rice your table ordered and use that. 

Make it a feast with by sampling other Singapore specialties all in one place, rather than amidst the maze of hawker food centers. Amongst two dozen choices are well-executed standards like the oyster omelette, Hainan chicken rice, and chicken satay. Don’t forget Tiger beer, Singapore’s equivalent of Anchor Steam for us, that is an essential staple with meals to quell the food and environs’ heat.

I didn’t realize “Shiok!” means an exclamation of general excitement until after my recent visit. It should specifically be a way of explaining the virtues of a wonderful bowl of laksa, like you’ll find at Shiok.

1137 Chestnut, Menlo Park; (650) 838-9448.

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Trevor Felch


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