Two-visit verdict: while I’m rooting hard for the small, sweet staff of Makan Malaysian Café on the one hand, I’m not about to defect from Team Jaya on the other; the latter still proffers a more appealingly varied & to date better-executed bill of Southeast Asian fare.** (Before you point to the take-out containers in the photos & cry foul for my comparing dine-in oranges to at-home apples, I’ll note that I’ve eaten both in & out at Jaya. For the unsightly nature of said photos, however, you should by all means point & cry.)
What Jaya Asian Grill doesn’t have, however, is ikan bilis, a senseless mess I’ve nonetheless missed mightily since moving here (until now!). It consists of tiny whole anchovies fried with shallots in sambal—a Malaysian staple for sauces that’s simultaneously sweet, spicy, & intensely funky (thanks to salty shrimp paste)—& that’s it, which is why Makan serves it as a side dish, though I’ve plowed through heftier portions in my day.
It wears the Dish of the Week mantle well for being so exuberantly wacky, though this almost-jammy rendition didn’t quite set me to swooning the way it had at my former go-to in Boston; perhaps the latter’s use of tamarind added a lusher, more complex tartness (there are, after all, many variations on the sambal theme)?
Could be, but Makan’s sharper, smokier sambal—with a curious molasses tang to it—had the last laugh by perfectly offsetting a stirfry of velvety eggplant, firm, pristine shrimp & bright scallions (left), to which it lent heft & depth.
As for the chicken-potato curry on the right, it was plenty likeable as an entree—smooth, soothing, brightly tinged with ginger—
but not so much as a dipping sauce for the flatbread known as roti; though typically much thinner, this was simply watery, largely flavorless—& the 1st time we had it, the bread itself was no compensation, with a tough, overworked quality.
Even staler & duller was the popiah, whose wrapper was oddly crackerlike, its egg-&-sausage filling dry, its advertised jicama absent.
Good thing subsequent orders showed vast improvement; though the dipping curry (this time with lentils) was still drippy & bland, the bread itself was much flakier & more tender-chewy,
as was the potato-curry-filled crust of these crisp fried puffs—
which, however, happen to be tiny (about finger-length); a single order may not suffice as a shareable appetizer.
On that note, take-out junkies like me beware—portions aren’t generous by American standards; even containers of rice (plain or coconut-scented, though the latter’s so subtle you have to do a bite-for-bite comparison to detect it) aren’t filled to the top. So be it; only so much dough & stew in various forms you can eat in one sitting anyway.
**To be fair, the kitchen is pretty much a one-woman operation; her repertoire is bound to be limited to what she can conceivably manage with her own 2 hands. And I don’t expect a place that bills itself as a Malaysian joint to serve Indonesian & Singaporean specialties as well, any more than I expect Chinese joints to offer Thai food or sushi (despite the weird Denver norm). That said, since Jaya does cover the whole Southeast Asian map & does it well, it simply has more to offer.