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No fish heads

A lot of good food and a little religion

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Outside the laundromat at HipSing Plaza, teenage boys were beating rhythms on upside-down laundry baskets while loud Mexican music played. Four hissing, belching buses idled while people boarded them for destinations in the Southwest and Mexico. Things were quiet at the Salvadorian-Mexican nightclub.

Our destination in this largely Hispanic shopping center with the Chinese name was Malaya Cafe (3662 Shallowford Road, 770-220-0853). We loved the place instantly when we saw this greeting on the door: "Bienvenidos al Restaurante Malaya Cafe."

The greeting is a pointed irony. Malaysian cuisine itself is a fusion of Chinese, Malay and Indian influences, with a bit of Thai, and here, a stone's throw from Buford Highway's multi-cultural mix, this cafe is making a pitch to the many Latinos in the area.

Our fascination only grew once inside. While Madonna sang "Evita" over the speakers, a man in the rear of the restaurant seemed to be nibbling on something massively piled on newspaper.

"What's that man eating?" I asked our server, a charming young woman anxious to please us.

She ran to the man's table, grabbed a handful and came back to our table. She extended her palm to reveal dried anchovies. "Here, see," she said. I love anchovies, so I grabbed a few and popped them in my mouth.

"Oh," she said, looking away, "we not usually eat like that. We cook them and some people even pinch heads off."

Wayne laughed. I cleared my throat. "Well, they taste mighty good to me just like this," I said, deciding that the man in the rear must have actually been an employee sorting through the fishies for cooking.

The menu here is not as broad as nearby Penang's and at least half the menu is devoted to Chinese-style Malaysian cooking, but we had a killer meal with the help of our server. After some resistance to recommending anything but the blandest dishes, she took the opposite tact and twice waxed ecstatically about the fish head curry.

"No," I said, "I can't eat fish heads. In fact I can't even imagine a fish head unless it's tied to a string and used to catch crabs."

"They are most delicious," she said. "Everyone like fish head."

"No," I said.

"You owe it to your readers," Wayne said.

"No," I said.

Instead we settled for nasi lemak, a dish featuring the little anchovies, fried until crunchy (with heads on) and served in a sweetened chili-fish sauce with coconut rice, curried chicken, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and cucumbers ($5.75). When I asked the server if everything should be mixed together, she gasped in horror. "No, no," she said. "Mix a bit of rice with chicken or with fish, but not altogether. Very wrong."

We also ordered Hainanese chicken rice, a Chinese favorite in Malaysia. It's rice cooked in chicken stock and coconut milk served with steamed chicken lightly flavored with a soy-based sauce. The difference in this and the very similar dish you find on many Chinese dim-sum menus is the addition of a hot sauce served on the side.

Our favorite dish was actually our starter, yong tofu ($6.25). You can have this with chicken broth or curry soup. Definitely pick the latter. It's a fiery Thai-like coconut-milk soup with eggplant and pieces of tofu stuffed with shrimp and minced pork. There also are pieces of chewy soy protein sheets and a jalapeño cleaned of its seeds and stuffed with pork. It's enough for a meal for one.

We also ordered char kway teow, fried broad rice noodles with shrimp, squid, bean sprouts, eggs, pork and soy sauce ($5.95). The sauce was allegedly spiked with chilies, but you could have fooled us. It was not nearly hot enough. The dish was tasty but the blandest on the table. Perhaps we'll order the "fried chicken feet noodle" next time.

For dessert, we ordered pulut hitam, a kind of tapioca-like porridge made with black rice and coconut milk. Delicious, but to my taste, it needed more sugar. The server told me that most Americans feel similarly but that the Chinese find the restaurant's version too sweet. Oh well, at least it's not made with fish heads.

Do yourself a favor and try this place. Our banquet-sized meal cost just over $25. Go on a weekend, and after dinner go next door to the Salvadoran disco.

Free Gospel Brunch
Speaking of the strange, I've encountered few events as wonderfully outré as the Atlanta Gospel Hour on Sundays at Burkhart's Pub (1492 Piedmont Ave., 404-872-4003). Yes, this is a gay bar, but the event attracts an increasingly mixed crowd.

There's a free buffet supper 4:30-7 p.m. prepared by Michael Turner, owner of Southern Affairs Catering. Although it sometimes resembles a church basement spaghetti supper, it just as often features deliciously grilled pork chops with fresh vegetables. This is followed, around 7:30 p.m., by the Gospel Hour, which features an assortment of drag queens, led by Morticia Deville, and a few out-of-drag folks. Singing live, lip-synching or banging tambourines, they perform all of the gospel music you grew up hearing on the radio and at your mama's Pentecostal Holiness church. (The performance is repeated at 10:30 p.m.)

Go, seriously. It's an amazing spectacle. Nobody will hit on you in church. And the food is usually good.

E-mail Cliff Bostock or call his voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504 with restaurant comments.

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