The crab at Fatty Crab in Kuala Lumpur is true to its reputation — fresh, tender and drenched in the perfect spicy, tangy sauce
January 2009 was a very different time for the hubby and me. We were recently engaged and in the throes of planning our wedding. We were living in Washington, DC, enjoying our work there, and surrounded by our friends and frequent visits from family. And yet, the pull of Malaysia was already calling to us.
On a weekend visit to New York, we stopped by The Fatty Crab, a Malaysian-inspired restaurant. We’d read good things about the place, a dimly-lit hipster joint with fun cocktails (mine was served in a giant coconut, which was novel to me at the time) and to-die-for chili crab. The crab set us back around $40 and arrived at our table in a bowl drenched in a delightfully tangy, sticky, spicy sauce dotted with chopped scallions and accompanied by pieces of crisp, buttered Texas toast for dipping. I remember licking my fingers clean and slurping up my rum-infused coconut water, feeling pretty good about myself (although that euphoric feeling would disintegrate later that day as the hubby, our friends and I would continue on to have a multi-meal, single-day gorgefest involving goat tacos, bacon brittle, Grimaldi’s pizza, bagels and lox, and pork buns).
Well, as it turns out, Zak Pelaccio, the chef-owner of The Fatty Crab, was inspired by a Kuala Lumpur joint of the same name. For months, the hubby and I have been trying to make the 25-minute trek to Petaling Jaya, a suburb outside Kuala Lumpur, to try the original Malaysian chili crab. And, as it turns out, thanks in part to our adventurous food-minded visitors from Milwaukee and their extremely cooperative four-month old son, we had that opportunity this past weekend.
Top left: the sign for the original Kuala Lumpur Fatty Crab; top right: a crowded dining room is a very good sign indeed; bottom: while you wait, snack on some chargrilled beef and chicken satay
By the time we arrived at The Fatty Crab just before 7:00 in the evening, the restaurant was already jam-packed with locals. The staff hustled us over to a makeshift waiting area comprised of a cluster of plastic chairs just outside the restaurant. They asked us the number in our party but never handed us a number or took our names, which was mildly disconcerting because a restaurant full of patrons to me means that the food is good, and when the food is good, I want to get some as soon as possible. (Cue my weight-shifting, ants-in-the-pants dance here.)
The menu in KL was much simpler than in New York, which is already pretty bare-bones. The crab is only served either steamed or chili style, and a steamed fish dish and butter prawns make up the rest of the menu. For sides, satay, chicken wings, a surprisingly excellent yet simple fried rice, and toast are available.
Amazing chicken wings — lightly battered and fried, and not the least bit greasy
We’d seen the chicken wings on our way into the restaurant, where a few staff had been frying them at a makeshift work station facing the street, where the ventilation was better. Since we had some time to kill, we ordered a batch, along with a few skewers of chicken satay. The wings were just lightly battered with a spice blend that made them just a little bit crispy on the outside while remaining wonderfully juicy on the inside. The chicken satay didn’t set themselves apart from any others we’ve had in Kuala Lumpur, so we’d probably pass on those next time.
When the crab finally arrived at our table and we plunged our hands into that steaming, sticky pile of parts splayed across a plastic serving plate, I was reminded of the same lackadaisical attitude that the New York version had impressed upon me. At the time, I thought it was kitschy and cute that this hip, casual joint had decided to serve a whole Dungeness crab in a funky Chinese patterned bowl half-full of sloppy, sticky sauce. Now, as we sunk into the KL version almost a year and a half later, I realized that New York wasn’t trying to take away the finesse out of Malaysian cuisine by making it seem more casual than it already is. In fact, I think if anything, the New York joint was trying its best to emulate that style and even clean up the presentation a little.
As for the flavor, I’d venture to say New York has it pretty close to the original KL version, although the KL sauce is a little milder than what I remember from the sauce in New York. In New York, the sauce slapped you in the face with its bold spicy, sweet and sourness. Here in KL, all of the flavors were a little subtler, and I thought the crab was better prepared.
But, in both locations, the crab is served with toast. And that toast — oh, it goes a long way in helping you remember how good that sauce is, over and over and over again.