It’s a given that the indicators of a good restaurant (or dining counter, cafeteria or street cart, for that matter) depend greatly on the person pointing them out. One man’s Michelin star is another’s Burger King crown, and while a thousand Yelp reviews can’t be wrong, they probably are when it comes to weighting atmosphere.
When the topic switches over from quality to authenticity, one tell inevitably enters the conversation: the diners’ demographic. Are you in an Indian restaurant? If so, are the people eating around you Indian? Is the breakfast counter you’ve just discovered populated by blue collars or brunch fiends? What language do you hear when you close your eyes and slurp up the noodles in your bowl of pho? How many black faces can you see in your newest strip mall soul food find? Assuming that cultural ownership of any given cuisine is still intact, the most popular indicator of authenticity, which often bleeds into the dialogue on quality, is a game of gastronomic Guess Who: Does your person speak English?
Racial profiling in picking a place to eat surely has its flaws, especially in diverse cities where an increasingly curious set of diners can be found enjoying increasingly unfamiliar foods. This doesn’t, however, render it irrelevant. My first trip to Taste Good in Queens placed me and my lonesome in a cramped and empty restaurant, trying very hard to enjoy my meal as the only other people in the dining room – five employees on their lunch break and a couple of middle aged men presumably doing the same – tried very little not to stare at me.
I knew that Taste Good was an authentic restaurant from the moment I walked in the door, but I didn’t know that it was the right restaurant until one of its waitresses, fresh off chuckling at my face’s inability to not sweat a monsoon in the presence of spices, offered to replace my chopsticks with a fork. I giggled nervously, declined, and prayed for a white man to walk through the door and steal my foreigner’s thunder.
This moment passing on a Tuesday morning in Elmhurst, no such thing happened. I sipped my tea and returned to the prize that had dragged me here along the tracks of the R train. Highlighted in a Times article on curry soups, Taste Good’s singapore kari laska was the best coconut milk curry I had tasted since the bookhouse boys and I had demolished a particularly glorious bowl of khao soi almost a year prior at Lotus of Siam.
The laksa here presents itself as a veritable curry galaxy: Shrimp, chicken, fish balls and fried tofu float between strands of rice noodle amidst swirls of coconut milk gravy and fiery red curry. This broth, sharply spiced, slightly sweet and ludicrously rich, is enough on its own to justify the trip. The accompanying noodles are glassy and thick, managing to pull off the illusion of heartiness when in fact they’re extremely light. A garnish of bean sprout and seaweed completes the portrait, which is something like the greatest of all soups combined into one powerful bowl.
The best quality of this laksa, though, is the fact that – at least, to the people amused by the sight of my sisyphean struggle to enjoy it without drowning – it is positively mundane. While grander dishes like whole fried fish or chili crab (procured from an outside market upon order) can fetch a price tag of $30, singapore laksa and most every item on the laksa menu costs a mere $5.50.
Taste Good’s other comfort dishes score just as highly, depending on your tolerance for belacan. The restaurant’s Rojak, a salad of turnip, cucumber, pineapple, bean sprouts and sliced squid, is smothered in a viscous blend of the fermented shrimp paste and peanut sauce. The resulting mix of sweet, savory, fresh and fishy can be just as intense as the spiciest curry if your palate is not prepared for the power of the dressing.
Nasi Lemak, a modest smörgåsbord of Malaysian cooking, offers a taste of everything, including gloriously curry soaked chicken, a crisp sampling of pickled vegetables, a handful of beans, one hard boiled egg, some diced cucumber and a pinch of anchovies. Mango fried rice is as good as can be expected; Taste Good’s judicious use of the sweet fruit, expert frying of the rice and inclusion of a spicy kick dispels any apprehension you might have about ordering something so run-of-the-mill. Likewise, hokkien char mee, a soy sauce drenched platter of giant wheat noodles sauteed with fresh greens and pork, plays one great, greasy note of satisfaction.
After equipping all of this home cooked goodness with an iced grass jelly, I leave myself very little reason not to come back. Taste Good’s menu is as expansive as its flavor palette, and while this restaurant is only one peek into Malaysian dining, I would hate to move on from its tables without becoming its most recognizable foreign object. After all, having shaken off fork shame during my first taste of laksa, I intently drained my bowl of all life, emptied my teapot, downed two styrofoam cups of water and walked out with my pride intact – weakly, perspiringly intact. If that isn’t enough authenticity for the elderly clientele of Taste Good’s weekday lunch hour, I’m coming back for achar and fried fish head.
Taste Good Malaysian Cuisine
82-18 45th Avenue
Elmhurst, NY 11373