Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
The moment I saw the plate of beef rendang, a Southeast Asian-style curried beef that's slow-cooked in coconut milk, I was suspicious.
The plate had landed on our table in New York—Elmhurst, Queens, to be specific. Much too far from the salty island breezes of Singapore, where I had had my first taste of beef rendang as a child. When done well, the beef is so tender from perfect braising that it practically falls apart in your mouth. And the ginger, galangal, turmeric, lemongrass, and other seasonings conspire to create a flavor so complex it'll stay with you for hours.
For the 17 years that I have lived in the United States, I have been on a single-minded quest to find a good version of beef rendang and the foods of my girlhood in my adoptive country. After eating my way through Southeast Asian restaurants in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., I'd come up empty so far. And I didn't see why Taste Good, a miniscule no-frills eatery where the tables are covered with slightly sticky clear plastic, would be any less disappointing.
And then I had my first bite. And another. And reached back to scoop up globs of gravy to pour over my rice. The beef didn't disintegrate in my mouth—but it was, indeed, tender. And the taste, just a lovely mosaic of spices. The first thought I had was of my mother calling out to me even before our front door could slam shut, announcing that she was back from a pilgrimage halfway across Singapore to Nasi Padang River Valley, where the rendang is so beautifully done that there is often a massive line snaking out of the small stall long before each lunch hour begins. The Taste Good rendang wasn't as good—nothing could ever live up to that memory, I've come to believe. But it was almost perfect.