Malaysian Cafe offers unique menu, excellent food, congenial service

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone grouse about the insularity of the Williams community, I’d be able to buy out Herb Allen by now. And the one factor that inspires a plurality of these complaints is the diversity of Williamstown cuisine, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, there are only two ways to eat out in the town: go for the predictable (albeit satisfying) fare that Colonial, Hot Tomatoes, Papa Charlie’s and Subway offer or fork over considerable sums of money at an upscale eatery. Constricting, to say the least.

An elixir to the suffocating Williamstown environment, though, is just a short drive to North Adams away. Tucked away unassumingly next to the Ashland Package Store (across from MCLA), the Malaysian Cafe offers a diverse selection of marvelously prepared items and an enjoyably casual atmosphere.

The Malaysian Cafe augments a permanent menu with weekly specials; one can always expect to find white and red meat, seafood and vegetarian items available. The entrees come in ample portions and are universally excellent. The seafood dishes sampled – salmon curry and shrimp – were both highly enjoyable. Both featured fresh, flaky fish smothered in flavorful but not overwhelming sauces; especially impressive was the robust yet smooth curry sauce. Even more memorable was the beef redang, a smattering of well-seasoned beef chunks buoyed by a spicy coating.

In addition, the appetizers and side orders were not mere addenda, but equally well-prepared, integral elements of the Malaysian Cafe experience. The spring rolls were crisp, hot and pleasantly grease free; the string beans were fresh and conservatively seasoned. Other favorites included the nicely breaded curry puffs and chicken fingers and the spicy duck soup (filled with sizable pieces of chicken and carrot).

Furthermore, the vegetarian menu is appealing in its own right. Tofu prepared in brown sauce was simple, smooth and light. Similar in taste – and health were string beans prepared in a slight amount of soy sauce. For those concerned about eating healthily, it is particularly important to note that the Malaysian Cafe makes a point to cook all its food without monosodium-glutanate.

But the food itself is merely a significant part of the story. The Malaysian Cafe boasts tremendously congenial, personable service. Largely responsible for this is founder/owner Albert Chan, who runs the Cafe with his wife Alice. Chan came to the United States from Malaysia just four years ago; after working with his brother for three years, he founded the Cafe. His attentiveness and charm have contributed to the Cafe’s great popularity with students at MCLA (many refer to him as “Uncle Al”), where the eatery has become a word of mouth success. It’s also very popular among North Adams denizens: Chan notes that community figures from all walks of life frequent the restaurant. A considerable percentage returns obsessively; a number of transplanted North Adams residents travels from the far corners of New England just to revisit the experience.

Chan’s close ties to Malaysia and his obvious reverence for the cuisine play a large role in the Cafe’s continuing appeal. In fact, Chan imports virtually all of his cooking materials from Malaysia, right down to the curry powder. Although he is quick to admit that this costs a considerable amount of money, Chan stresses the importance of using the best ingredients available. As trivial as a difference in curry powders might seem, Chan says that it holds a great effect on the distinct flavor of the meal. This attention to detail shows in the food’s consistent and measured flavor.

Even if the food weren’t so consistently solid, though, Chan would be a big draw by himself. He’s an effortlessly gregarious personality who seems never to tire of chatting with customers, suggesting particularly fresh items from the menu, relating tales of late nights at the restaurant and espousing his refreshingly easygoing business philosophy.

As easygoing as this philosophy is – Chan often stays open well past closing time if customers continue to pour in; he offers free soda after the bar closes – it is equally savvy. Not only has he managed to drum up considerable grassroots support, but he has expanded his operation to include delivery. Requests can be phoned in at (413) 664-7911; the menu is available online at http://www.baygo.com/malaysian. Although he is looking for a delivery man, Chan currently takes care of deliveries himself and can do so in 45minutes to an hour, the same amount of time that Amazing Wok takes. And the Malaysian Café’s food is both a welcome change from and a considerable improvement over Amazing Wok’s fare.

Currently, the Malaysian Cafe is one of the Berkshire Valley’s best kept secrets; as word spreads, though, it should continue its already steady growth. Catch it before it becomes a huge hit. If the break from traditional Williams fare proves as the motivation, the fine food and cordial service will keep you coming back for more.