Skip Chinese, order Malaysian specialties at Liu's Cuisine
Do your tired Hoosier tongue a favor. Forsake your neighborhood Chinese takeout for once with its familiar beef and broccoli or General Tso's chicken. Drive yourself, instead, to Liu's Cuisine on High School Road and use your tongue to order things it's never tasted - fresh stingray, perhaps, cooked with lemongrass and tamarind, or a crispy omelet with baby oysters. Better yet, shock your waiter and ask for the "Chinese" menu, a page of authentic pan-Asian favorites meant mostly for those in the know. You'll need help translating, but you'll give your tongue some surprises it might not have expected on this side of the globe.
Malaysian lo mee ($6.25)
Remember when even simple Chinese food was exotic? When chop suey was an innocuous concoction by clever Chinese cooks suspicious of timid American palates? When moo goo gai pan was a punch line on sitcoms - Laura Petrie's favorite Chinese food on The Dick Van Dyke Show or the dish Bob Newhart orders 93 gallons of one Thanksgiving when he's wifeless and drunk?
Thankfully, culinary times are changing, even in the heartland. We know our geography of Asia better, and we've tasted everything from Thai to Korean to Vietnamese in our own backyard. We've even come to understand subtle distinctions among different Chinese regions - the bite of a Szechwan pepper or the homey satisfaction of Cantonese dim sum. Still, a style of restaurant proliferates where the menu is heavy with egg rolls and fried rice, where the owners aren't even Chinese, where their eyes will widen when you order the squid or the duck.
So it is at Liu's Cuisine, where you'll do well to skip the "Set Lunch" with, yes, chop suey, and head straight for "Noodle Corner," a list of 22 dishes influenced by cultures as diverse as India, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. This may leave you wondering about the heritage of the owners. But when you know that they're from Malaysia, a country that spans the tip of the peninsula just south of Thailand and the north coast of the island of Borneo, you'll understand why the cuisine here is so diverse. As Malaysia's population includes indigenous Malay, cultural Chinese, and immigrants from India, the menu at Liu's reflects all of these influences, making your dinner decisions difficult.
The setting for all of this is the former Forbidden City on West 38th Street, which, after a brief stint as a restaurant named New Cuisine, has easily morphed into Liu's Cuisine with the replacement of a few letters. Inside, the décor is a bit more elaborate, more red and gold, than your typical strip-mall Chinese restaurant. But there's a dim, inherited feeling to the interior that reminds you of all the Chinese standards prepared over the years at this site.
But you didn't come all this way for a white tablecloth or a Ming vase. After some negotiating with our waiter for recommendations, we settled on a lunchtime feast that straddled several Asian borders. For an appetizer, we ordered roti canai ($3.00), crispy pancakes of Indian derivation, served with a spicy curry sauce with chicken. The crêpe-like pancakes were thinner and more delicate than their Indian cousins, but the sauce packed a nice heat in this decidedly light starter.
Tom yan soup ($4.50), perhaps an alternative transliteration of the famous Thai soup tom yum, continued the spicy trend. A wide bowl of broth flecked with little red dots gave evidence of dried chiles cooked in oil, and meaty shrimp with a few vegetables enriched a pristine, edifying soup with a whiff of the sea.
Two entrées from "Noodle Corner" also had divergent heritages. Clay-pot noodles ($6.75), served, strangely, not in clay but an aluminum pan with a handle, were perhaps the most Chinese dish we sampled. Tasty thin noodles were tossed with more of those generous shrimp, pork, bits of squid, crisp snow peas, and crunchy baby corn in a deliciously gossamer sauce. This was no ordinary plate of Asian noodles. Malaysian lo mee ($6.25) offered up thicker, heartier noodles in a viscous sauce of homemade soy sauce in which the chicken had previously marinated. Chewy black mushrooms offered textural contrast.
Seeing that we hadn't finished the latter, one of the owners, Hooi Tan, came by, insisting it wasn't to our American liking. This sparked some debate. Is taste innate across cultures or something learned from what we're used to eating? Can Americans rightly assess what's good Malaysian food, or can Malaysians judge American favorites like barbecue or pizza?
As evidence of something even more authentic than what we'd eaten, Tan brought us a taste of cold five-spice beef, available only from the untranslated menu. A dish of three day's preparation - parcooked first by boiling, then marinated for two days to deepen the flavors - this did take our tongues a bit further from where they'd been. As with any ethnic restaurant worth its muster, Liu's Cuisine enabled the journey.
3837 N. High School Rd.
Monday-Thursday 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Sunday 11:00 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Food : 3.5 Stars
Atmosphere : 3 Stars
Service : 3.5 Stars