Tropika isn't a place you'd happen upon by accident. The plain wooden structure, obscured by a hulking apricot-colored El Torito and the high-voltage mass of twinkle lights from the popular Zov's Bistro, sits behind Tustin's Enderle Center.
But Orange County food cognoscenti are nevertheless beating a path to the 6-month-old Malaysian restaurant. Inside, the teak-lined walls, the dark bar and beautifully crafted basketry transport you. Now you're in a steamy tropical colonial outstation from a W. Somerset Maugham novella. From the bar, laughter drifts out to the main dining room where large family gatherings are often assembled.
The menu describes Tropika's fare as "Malaysian and Thai Fusion" in an effort, I suspect, to woo customers who are unfamiliar with the Southeast Asian peninsula's food.
But apart from pad Thai, tom yum soup and a Thai curry or two, the lion's share of the dishes served at this stylish restaurant are classic Malay cooking — and it's not stretching the truth to use the word "fusion" to describe them. Malaysia's waves of immigrants and hodgepodge of indentured servants put a whole spectrum of Asian dishes on a collision course: Coconut-rich South Indian curries, Chinese regional favorites and the local indigenous fare merged there long before fusion became a culinary fashion statement.
At Tropika, Indian-inspired roti telur, a beloved snack sold at outdoor hawker stalls in Malaysia, is offered as an appetizer. The swoon-inducing, multilayered griddle bread, paper-thin and folded over chopped egg and shallot, is accompanied by a small dipping bowl of ochre-colored chicken curry that's rich with coconut milk and thick with spices. Roti prata, an unfilled but otherwise similar bread the size of a plasma TV screen, comes with the same curry.
Another great starting point for group meals (apart from the colorful fruity cocktails and martinis), is an order of oatmeal-battered jumbo shrimp, listed with the seafood dishes. The concept may seem slightly Ferrán Adrià-esque, but the crustaceans, enrobed in their shaggy coats of tempura-style batter incorporating rolled oats, are fabulously crunchy with a slightly sweet saltiness.
All these dishes exemplify Tropika's well-honed kitchen skills. The cooking is lighter and has more finesse than street food or mom-and-pop cafe fare. Even so, those with a hankering for authentic Malaysian flavors will find them here too: water spinach sautéed with the stinky fermented fish seasoning belacan; Chinese broccoli seasoned with salted fish; and asam laksa, a noodle soup that is to Malaysia what pho is to Vietnam. The ruddy, tart broth, with a distinct essence of sardine, holds bouncy, pencil-thick rice noodles and a topping of raw shallots — a combination that mostly appeals to those who grew up eating it.
Tropika's menu lists Malaysia's famous chile crabs but these must be ordered in advance. Other notable entrees include rendang lamb, a spectacularly seasoned dry red curry that clings to every bite of the meat. Pangan fish, smothered in a lemony chile sauce, is cooked in a banana leaf that helps infuse the fish with the sauce's flavor; the restaurant offers a choice of striped bass or sea bass.
Steamed Hainan chicken and its broth-cooked rice is a dish for chicken purists; simple yet imbued with intense flavor. Nasi lemak, a classic combo akin to a Japanese bento but with Southeast Asian flavors, features fragrant coconut milk-cooked rice topped with fried rendang chicken, a little mound of tiny, crackly dried anchovies and a hard-cooked egg.
Few things mirror Malaysia's food evolution better than its noodle dishes. Along with Cantonese chow mein, Tropika's lengthy list includes Chiu Chow-style char kueh teow, silky flat rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp and bean sprouts. There is also curry laksa chicken, thin wheat noodles submerged in a Thai-Chinese lemongrass-coconut curry splashed with herbs and skinny Singaporean mee hoon rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp and revved up with a hint of Indian-style yellow curry.
Desserts are strictly Southeast Asian classics: sweetened black sticky rice under warm coconut milk; shaved ice topped with sweet condensed milk, red beans and corn. A night-market favorite, peanut-filled pancakes, is tasty here, thin pancakes folded over a toothsome filling of syrup-sweetened crushed roasted peanuts. Cut into wedges it's easy to share.
The more refined aspects of Tropika's food and its forays into modern fusion cooking may dismay traditionalists. A creation like the halved mango shell overflowing with plump shrimp in a fruity, chile-sparked sauce with dead-ripe mango slices, however skillfully prepared, definitely lacks the funkier traits of the cuisine. But look around, you'll see tables full of Malaysian expats reveling in the kitchen's updated ambitions.
Location: 17460 E. 17th St., Tustin, (714) 505-9908; tropika.com.
Price: Appetizers, $3.25 to $8; lunch specials, $7 to $8.75; entrees and noodles, $7.50 to $22; desserts, $3 to $6.
Best dishes: Rotis, oatmeal-battered jumbo shrimp, rendang lamb, curry laksa chicken, peanut pancake.
Details: Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. All major cards. Free lot parking.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times