Between my seat on Straits of Malaya’s roof patio and the door leading downstairs sit a couple dozen of the luckiest diners in the District. These people are fortunate not so much because of the food, which is routinely excellent, but because they are here, outside on the patio’s inaugural evening, one when the temperature of the air seems to match that of the body, and the only breeze is stirred by the unending flow of conversation. “Well, this is lovely, honey,” remarks my mother, who’s in town to visit some of her chums and embarrass me in front of mine.
It could be argued that I occupy Straits of Malaya’s best seat. Situated next to the ledge and far from the stream of kitchen traffic, I have a plain view of the entire open-air dining room and, if that gets old, I can easily make chitchat with anyone on the sidewalk below. However, if I should have to pee or perhaps escape in the event of war, with the table pinned to my belly and my back to the patio’s wall, I’d be stuck. As it happens, my bladder holds, while the peace does not.
It’s hardly Desert Storm revisited, but the war between me and Mom has its share of fireworks. At issue is my mouth. Not what I suck into it, which is bad enough—cigarette smoke, alcohol, and tonight, profuse amounts of poh pia and cha kway teow—but what I let spill out. “He has a rotten mouth,” Mom announces to my friends, spurred by the constant flow of cussing I can’t ever seem to control. “It all started when he got big. Then it was ‘shit this,’ ‘fuck that.’ I finally had to start fining him.”
Straits’ wait staff, if not the most orderly in town, is surely the most team-oriented. Lucky for me, a unit of no fewer than eight waiters keeps our table occupied most of the night, which helps to dull the roar of my family squabbles.
An unofficial poll has waiter No. 3 ranked highest, slightly edging out the jovial No. 5 for friendliness and the stone-faced but jack-rabbit quick No. 7 for efficiency. It’s No. 3 who informs us that Straits is a Malaysian/Singaporean restaurant that serves its dishes family-style. It’s also No. 3 who, after our meal has run its course, takes back our initial order of humdrum regular coffee and returns with colorful mugs filled with the Malaysian blend sweetened by a mixture of condensed milk and chicory. With this, No. 3 secures a gracious tip.
The evening starts with a five-spice roll and shrimp cakes. Though some of us openly hope that the “five” in our first appetizer’s name will reflect quantity, no one complains when the single fried roll of beef arrives seasoned with five spices that range from hot to sweet and encased in a crispy tofu wrap. The shrimp cakes—blended with string beans, scallions, and cilantro—are soft and chewy, cut like mini slices of pizza, and taste best smothered with spoonfuls of chili peanut sauce.
Chicken is the backbone of the majority of Straits’ entrees (no pork is served), all of which come with bowls of rice. But most dishes can be ordered in vegetarian versions, and on some you can substitute beef for a dollar more. Waiter 4 declares the arrival of our first order by barking “E-9”—otherwise known as Entree 9 or tamarind chicken—a mellow stir-fry of tomatoes, onions, and crunchy carrots and water chestnuts. On paper, potatoes seem like an odd ingredient in the ginger chicken with straw mushrooms, but they turn out to be the dish’s strength, each starchy bite revealing a spectrum of flavor. (Then again, poached grapefruit might seem normal compared to Straits’ bor-bor-cha-cha, a warm, puddinglike dessert made with plum-size balls of tapioca, taro root, sweet potatoes, and coconut milk that tastes every bit as weird as it sounds. It’s a must.)
Around the time my favorite part of the meal arrives, I earn my purple heart. Waiter 5 isn’t lying when he announces that poh pia is “always a crowd-pleaser.” A close cousin of mu shu pork, poh pia is a mound of shredded jucama cooked with leeks, sprouts, dried shrimp, and chicken that’s meant to be rolled into pancakes and eaten sans fork. While alternating bites of my makeshift burrito with mouthfuls of cha kway teow—a frisky concoction dominated by mongo rice noodles and chicken that doesn’t get hot until 10 seconds after you swallow—my roommate, who monitors international arms control during the day, decides to drop a bomb.
“So what was he like in the fourth grade?” he asks my mother, stabbing a wine glass in my direction. “He was very sweet until he got to be 14 or 15,” Mom muses, while Waiter 8 cuts the darkness with a candle. “Then he started to do all sorts of gross things in the yard.” Not caring to hear what ungodly deeds Mom is alluding to, I feign disinterest and tune in to chirping birds and the hum of traffic. Nibbling later on a serving of fried bananas slathered with sweet pandon leaf sauce, I thank God herself for allowing my character-assassination to take place in what one friend just slightly overstates is the most pleasant dining environment in D.C.
Straits of Malaya, 1836 18th St. NW. (202) 483-1483.
Manners, on the part of both the clientele and the staff, are not in short supply at Pete’s Restaurant & Carryout. “Some of us folks from the South learned ourselves how to be polite before we came up here,” brags one man after gushing to his waitress about the pot roast. Ignoring his endorsement, I order the mushroom sub ($3.69 as a lunch special, fries extra), a sloppy hoagie of ’shrooms, zucchini, and green peppers. “Did you like your sandwich?” Pete asks, as he tallies my bill on an abacus. “You bet,” I reply. “Especially the tomato sauce. I’d eat that over noodles.”
Pete’s Restaurant and Carryout, 212 Second St. SE. (202) 544-7335.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.—Brett Anderson