As of March 17, all dining rooms in Oregon closed for four weeks. But you can still support Malka—and other businesses like it—by ordering take-out, or buying a gift certificate for future redemption. See their website for more details.
Remember Mr. Toad's Wild Ride? The daft Disneyland attraction where guests careen around and sometimes through a series of obstacles, yet somehow everything works out fine and everyone walks away with a big grin?
The long-awaited Malka is the restaurant version. Items on the menu have nutty names and even crazier compositions. Each dish is a madcap mélange of a dozen or more ingredients that, on paper, couldn't possibly work together, yet invariably do. A meal at Malka is chaos that magically coalesces into harmony. And everyone seems to leave happy.
The main imagineer behind Malka is Jessie Aron. She and business partner Colin McArthur used to run the food cart Carte Blanche on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, serving an abbreviated version of Malka's menu. In the three years it took to get Malka off the ground—yes, they were delayed even longer than Bullard—Aron bided her time as a cook, server and right-hand woman at the initial incarnation of Maya Lovelace's Mae.
Aron had a chaotic upbringing in which she grew accustomed to eating thrown-together meals with random components. She developed a savantlike ability to weave together incongruous flavors, textures, colors and temperatures in a way discernible only to her. It is a rare culinary prescience comparable to the video game geek who seems to know intuitively where all the pieces of the Tetris puzzle fit.
Malka does not proclaim its adventurousness loudly, at least from the outside. It is located in a well-maintained but otherwise nondescript old house your great-grandparents might have built in the 1920s, on one of few remaining residential blocks along Southeast Division Street. Inside, the space is homey, except for two connected dining rooms crammed tightly with tables seating 35 or so. It is also decorated with a vast assemblage of tchotchkes, from Moroccan-style, globular light fixtures and deep-blue floral wallpaper to an ornate antique copper water tank with twin brass spigots and a contemporary glowing doorbell dispenser button. Naturally, everyone finds a reason to have a glass of water with their meal.
The dining experience officially begins with the order-at-the-counter ritual. Flummoxed newbies tend to struggle and hold up the line, but Aron has at least kept the menu short thus far. Reservations also help limit the backup. Order a drink here, preferably a Thai iced tea-flavored slushie with a float of fancy rum ($9) or on its own ($5). After orders are taken, parties are escorted to their tables by servers—sometimes even Aron herself, who apologizes profusely about her lack of serving skills.
So, what to eat? The answer is anything. You really can't go wrong.
Two "smaller plates" were both highlights: Aron lamented that the eggplant-zucchini fries ($9) were fried too long, but they were actually perfect. The well-battered thin curls of zucchini and carrot achieve a satisfying crackly crunch, and the eggplant wedges contrasted crunchy outsides with creamy interiors. Additions of tangy za'atar, sharp Aleppo pepper, honey, feta cheese, lemon and a flurry of herbs added a full compass of flavors.
Equally inspired are the pork ribs christened "Old Deuteronomy" ($12 medium, $18 large). The meaty ribs also get a turn in the deep fryer, creating a solid crust embellished with a Thai-like treatment of sweet and spicy nam prik pao and coconut cream. But wait, there's more: pickled onion and shallots, plus a sprinkle of sesame seeds, a couple Hawaiian rolls and a bracing side salad of grapefruit, avocado and cucumber—another multifaceted dish that miraculously manages to all work together.
The entrees are equally manic, arriving in many zany layers, but founded on simple bases such as the prosaic rice bowl, sandwiches or, in the case of "The Noodle Incident" ($16), even mac-and-cheese. Flavored with sake and berbere, a piquant Ethiopian spice blend, the dish isn't perspiration-inducing, but it is gooey as hell. The "many cheeses" described on the menu are supplemented with chunks of hot dog, sautéed vegetables, roasted cherry tomatoes, fried shallots, toasted breadcrumbs, balsamic and herbs. It is far more exhausting to contemplate than it is to eat.
The most tantalizing of the rice bowls is the "Important Helmet for Outer Space" ($16), which dates back to Carte Blanche days. The menu description speaks for itself: "Rice bowl with slow-roasted pork shoulder in apricot curry bbq sauce, coconut jasmine rice, stir-fried vegetables, pan roasted mushrooms, pineapple-tamarind slaw, crispy shallots, peanuts, avocado, herbs, pickled ginger and peppers, sesame, lime"—plus passion fruit-habanero hot sauce on request. Eat each part on its own or mix it all up and contemplate a dozen tastes all at once.
And so on it goes, insane deliciousness at every turn. I'd talk about the joy of the matzoh ball khao soi, but it's already rotated off the menu. In fact, it was rumored on my most recent visit in early March that more menu rotations were imminent. Malka is a wild ride indeed, and the anticipation of what it might do next feels like waiting in line for a roller coaster.
EAT: Malka, 4546 SE Division St., 503-984-1580, malkapdx.com. Tuesday-Sunday, 5-10 pm.