The more I spend time in Henrietta, I'm finding that the town's true identity is hard to grasp. It is home to some of the most over-developed land in the county, and just generally lacks soul. As I explore the independent restaurant scene though, I see an intriguing dichotomy. Henrietta is home to the majority of Rochester's Korean, Indian, and traditional Chinese places, and as it turns out, the singular Malaysian bastion.
It appears that Coco Garden is the only Malaysian restaurant in Upstate New York, which makes it a destination for those that grew up with these specific flavors.
The aroma and flavor of shrimp was hard to avoid when going through the more Malaysian-style items on the menu, whether from belacan (dried, fermented shrimp paste), or fresh-cooked versions in different sizes. Those that have difficulty with intense, fishy aromas may want to shy away, but they'll be missing out on some fascinating food.
A noodle soup called prawn mee ($8.95) was the easiest of the shrimp-based dishes to tackle, with a light dried shrimp broth, long egg noodles, slices of pork, fresh cooked shrimp, greens, and dried onions. The fishy aroma was definitely present but wasn't overwhelming, and it benefitted from the housemade sambal hot sauce. The kang kung belacan ($11.95) was a generous serving of sautéed water spinach coated in a belacan and dried shrimp sauce that was intensely savory and nicely complemented the slightly bitter cooked greens.
Rojak ($6.50) was one of the more challenging dishes from an American palate perspective. This isn't your generic fruit salad. Chunks of cucumber, mango, and pineapple were coated in a dense, inky shrimp paste sauce and what seemed like a sweetened soy base, and then topped with a fritter and diced peanuts. It is an odd clash of sweet and umami that had me going back for more even when I wasn't sure I liked it. If you want something adventurous, go for this, but don't be surprised when your server gives you the sideways look when you order it.
The jumbo prawns in special sauce ($23.95) was a fantastic dish. While I enjoyed eating the bodies of the shrimp with the garlicky sauce, the best part was ripping the heads off and sucking out the briny, slightly livery goodness — it's similar to the tomalley of a lobster.
Nasi lemak ($8.95) is referred to as the national dish of Malaysia. At Coco Garden it comes as a mixed plate of long-cooked curry chicken, coconut rice, dried anchovy and onion, and sweet pickled vegetables. There are an abundance of strong flavors and textures on this plate: chewy, fishy anchovies; deep curry; and the crunch of the lightly pickled cabbage and peppers. It offered an interesting balance when eaten together with the coconut rice as the binder.
A similar curry was the focal point of the roti canai ($4.75) appetizer. This dish has an Indian heritage but is popular in Malaysia and I can see why. The chicken and potato curry was full of roasted spices with a pleasant heat and developed flavors. Combining the curry with the crispy and chewy roti was such a perfect start to a meal that we ordered it on both visits.
Mee goreng ($8.95) is another Indian-inspired dish, and is based around noodles cooked in a dark squid and curry flavored sauce. It's a familiar and exciting combination that reminds me of a complex lo mein with hints of soy and a variety of main items like fried tofu, potato, egg, and shrimp.
Both the satay ($7.95) and sarang burong ($12.95) are more approachable dishes for the less adventurous diner. The chicken and beef satay skewers has a sweet marinade and were grilled over charcoal but lacked the depth I was hoping for. Sarang burong reminded me of an open top chicken potpie with a fried taro ring serving as the shell and the familiar flavors of Chinese takeout like chicken, shrimp, and mixed vegetables as the filling.
As we approach the summer months, both the ABC and the chendol ($4.95 each) are perfect desserts to cut the heat. Each is based around snow cone like ice covered in a dark, caramel flavored coconut sugar sauce that is rich and refreshing at the same time. The ABC uses red bean, corn and palm nuts to add texture while the chendal uses corn starch based pea shoot pieces and the same red beans.
You can read more from Chris Lindstrom or listen to his podcast on his food blog, Foodabouttown.com. Share any dining tips with him on Twitter and Instagram @stromie.