The recipe for laksa, the absurdly but understandably popular noodle soup eaten across Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, is versatile; it may change every few miles, kind of like Appalachian barbecue.
There are common elements: a bright orange coconut milk broth with pools of red chili oil and a stark aroma of lemongrass, chili and turmeric. Combined into something spicy, creamy and sweet, they give the soup a palpable smack of flavor. The immersed noodles — the wide rice variety or vermicelli or even egg, depending on the chef's philosophy — function more as a satisfactory delivery method than an independent ingredient. Properly executed, laksa is among the most perfect of street foods.
When Spice Table, the project of chef Bryant Ng, met a premature end, there was a kind of mourning period for the fall of Los Angeles laksa. But Bryant Ng is back: His new restaurant Cassia recently opened in Santa Monica, and although Cassia is not Spice Table, his laksa is back too. Ng's version, with its shrimp paste funk and aggressive spice, arrives with a satisfying fire.
There are, of course, other places to sample laksa around L.A. Perhaps the most concentrated availability of the dish in America is in West Covina's Hong Kong Plaza, a diminutive strip mall that has become the center of Malay cooking in Southern California. In the plaza's food court, there are two Indonesian vendors and a branch of the wonderful Alhambra restaurant Borneo Kalimantan.
A few steps away, Penang, the aptly named Malaysian restaurant, has been serving a quality curry laksa for years. But the restaurant also serves asam laksa, a version of the soup that originated in Penang. Asam laksa is a different species of noodle soup that relies on a tamarind-based curry rather than coconut milk.
In Pasadena, the Singaporean coffee shop QQ Kopitiam serves a mild laksa, in addition to other Singaporean street food dishes. In fact, there may not be a more invigorating lunch than laksa and kopi, the Singaporean coffee that is tempered with condensed milk.