All around metro Detroit, sushi bars, Vietnamese cafes, Thai restaurants, and Japanese steakhouses are about as commonplace as hamburger joints. But Malaysian/Singaporean spots? Not until Man Chai opened Satay House on Dequindre Road just north of 13 Mile did the already Asian-accented neighborhood get a taste of such distinctive Malaysian dishes as nasi goreng (fried rice with shrimp, squid, and egg), and bak kut teh, (a soup fragrant with Chinese herbs, star anise, mushrooms, tofu, and pork ribs).
The Malaysian native, now 46, grew up in the small town of Melaka near his family’s oil palm plantation. His improbable journey to Madison Heights began when he was 18 years old and moved to Germany, joining friends who were already established there. He added to his native-land cooking experience by training and working with German chefs, and he says he still has a taste for sturdy German sausages today.
Chai moved back to Malaysia after a few years and opened his own restaurant, serving Malaysian street food, including satay and fried noodles. But when the country’s economy fell into a downward spiral in 1998, he moved again, this time to the New York/New Jersey area, where he worked in restaurants — mainly in the melting-pot borough of Queens. After several years there, his brother Weng Chai, already established here, persuaded him to join the family in Michigan.
Satay House, an airy, one-room spot seating about 50, offers brightly painted walls and large windows under an exposed ceiling. And it fits in well with the neighborhood, already a bastion of Asian restaurants, shops, and bakeries — one of which is run by Weng Chai and his wife.
Tables are set with chopsticks and small Chinese-style tea cups, although there are many other beverage choices beyond tea, including iced coffee, bubble drinks, and smoothies blended with coconut, red bean, lychee, and durian. Durian is a Malaysian fruit that’s definitely an acquired taste, but there are myriad other flavors more suited to Western palates, including mango, strawberry, and papaya.
Chai’s nephew, Will Chai, runs the front of the house and interprets the menu for newcomers to the cuisine. Among notable dishes is roti canai, a thin Indian pancake with a crackerlike crispness that’s eaten by breaking off pieces and dipping them into a chicken-and-potato curry sauce. Chicken satay is another. The marinated, grilled chicken on wooden skewers is served with peanut sauce. The dish is also available in a beef version.
More offbeat is a pickled vegetable assortment called achat that combines chopped cabbage, carrots, green beans, chilies, and sesame seeds in turmeric and other spices. It can be served as a side-dish or an appetizer. It accompanies the main dishes well, including coconut curry chicken, potatoes, and rice; Singapore fried rice; or one of the noodle dishes.
Like many of the dishes, achat is highlighted on the menu with the symbol of a chili to denote its spiciness. Overall, the spice levels are relatively gentle and well-balanced, lending just a subtle undertone of heat rather than a blast.
Although its clientele is overwhelmingly of Asian heritage, Satay House is very accessible to those trying Malaysian food for the first time.