File this one under “D” for “Don’t judge a book by its cover” – the cover being an ordinary storefront wedged between two vacant spaces in an East Raleigh strip mall that has seen better days. Above the weathered green awning, the words “Red Pepper Asian” are the only hint of the spicy adventure that awaits inside.
Chapter 1: Setting the scene. His curiosity piqued by those words above the awning, he opens the door. He steps inside with his wife, trusty sidekick for his adventures in gastronomic sleuthing, at his side. They’re promptly greeted by a hostess with a warm smile, and further encouraged by the cheery look of the compact dining room, whose salmon-colored walls are hung with contemporary paintings of poppies and tree silhouettes.
He gives his wife a look that she understands well. It says what the heck, let’s give it a try. They’re seated at one of the handful of tables and handed menus.
Chapter 2: A taste of things to come? Or a red herring? Giving the menu a quick once-over, he begins to doubt whether he should have taken on this case. He has seen this hackneyed cast of characters more times than he cares to recall: the usual Chinese-American suspects, mostly, and a sprinkling of the Thai dishes that have become obligatory in a restaurant with “Asian” in its name.
On closer inspection, he discovers a few intriguing possibilities. An appetizer described as “fried calamari with salt, pepper and garlic” looks promising. Could this be the classic Cantonese salt-and-pepper squid, he wonders? Or maybe the more aggressively seasoned Szechwan version?
Under “Chef’s Specials,” he spots Singapore noodles, beef chow fun, house pan-fried noodle. Also curry noodle soup, which the menu describes as “tofu, bean sprout & scallion in a coconut curry broth.” Probably Thai, he thinks, but – ever the optimist – perhaps some other Southeast Asian cuisine? Maybe “Asian” in the restaurant’s name signifies more than just Chinese takeout and Thai curries.
He knows there’s only one way to find out.
Chapter 3: Clues and a plot twist. Turns out the calamari appetizer is indeed salt-and-pepper squid, and it’s as tender as the final scene of a romance novel. The subtle seasoning indicates Cantonese provenance, a deduction that’s backed up by house-made steamed pork dumplings that would do a dim sum house proud.
A respectable if not particularly memorable rendition of pad thai suggests that following the trail to Thailand will not necessarily lead up a blind alley, but neither is it likely to yield hidden treasure.
Curry noodle soup with chicken, on the other hand, is a mother lode of flavors and supple petals of boneless breast. There’s something about that flavor, he thinks, that he can’t quite put a finger on. It leans a little more toward umami – fish sauce, maybe? dried shrimp? – than the tropical perfumes of Thai herbs and spices he was expecting. He asks the server, who explains that the soup is a Malaysian specialty. Mystery solved.
But the larger mystery deepens when, on the way out the door, he picks up a menu for one more look. Only then does he see, on the very back page, a separate section labeled “Traditional Menu.” Under that heading are 19 listings, a pan-Asian potpourri of authentic dishes ranging from wu shi spare ribs to Penang tofu. If he had any doubts before, he is clear now: Further investigation is called for.
Chapter 4: Out of the wok, into the fire. The next time he visits, he orders exclusively from the traditional menu. He can’t resist starting with baby fish with peanuts, a popular beer-drinking snack, featuring tiny anchovies fried whole and prepared in slightly different ways from Szechwan to Taiwan to Indonesia. Red Pepper’s chile-flecked rendition is addictively salty but not at all fishy-tasting. He wishes they served beer to go with it.
Fried tofu is a fine vegetarian alternative, he notes. Or it would be if the kitchen hadn’t substituted ordinary duck sauce for the promised sweet chile sauce.
But he can find nothing whatsoever to fault with Malay sambal shrimp, a kaleidoscope of plump shellfish, wok-blistered string beans, red peppers and onions in a richly fragrant sauce glistening with chile oil. And he’s beguiled by a rendition of ma po tofu unlike any he’s ever had. There’s much more sauce than in the traditional dry Szechwan version, and there’s no hint of the tongue-numbing Szechwan peppercorn that is a hallmark of the original. But there is a spice with a distinctive floral note that he can’t place. Once more, he turns to the server – the same friendly and efficient woman who greeted and waited on his table last time – for an answer.
She doesn’t know its name in English, but she does explain that this is a Malaysian take on ma po tofu. She goes on to add that, in addition to the handful of Malaysian dishes on the regular menu, some of the listings on the back page are Malaysian riffs on the originals. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and he finds himself looking forward to future visits when he can try Malaysian-style beef chow fun and pad see ew.
Chapter 5: A family affair. As he suspected all along, the helpful hostess/server is Bobo Liew, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Choa Hui “Mike” Chen. A native of China, Chen does most of the cooking. Liew runs the front of the house, though her contributions to the menu – the dishes of her native Malaysia – are the final pieces of the puzzle.
Well, almost the final pieces. Turns out Chen and Liew ran Fortune Palace for a decade before that Raleigh landmark closed in 2012. Fans of Fortune Palace will be happy to learn that many of their favorite dishes (including, come to find out, the fried calamari and beef chow fun) are again available at Red Pepper. The sequel, you might say, is a worthy successor.