A Delicate Balance

NEO may be a well-kept secret but it shouldn’t be

Heather Hoch
Nasi Lemak, featuring coconut infused jasmine rice, rendang beef, and shrimp sambal, $14.95.

The team at Neo Malaysian Kitchen and Sushi have been around Tucson in various iterations and at different venues for nearly 30 years. Many of you may remember Seri Malaka, the restaurant that introduced Malaysian fare to the Old Pueblo. And then there was Om, a modern fusion place in the Foothills.

Now there is NEO, "an epicurean melting pot of authentic and bold flavors," to quote their website. And while that may seem to be a bit hyperbolic, there's no denying that the food here is prepared with a skillful hand and a dedication to the flavors of Malaysia.

Malaysia, itself, is a melting pot. It consists of a peninsula and a scattering of islands in the South China Sea. Neighboring countries, and culinary and cultural influences, include Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. It was also once part of the British Empire. Surrounded by the sea, foods from all over have worked their way into the local cuisine. Spices play a central role, and the menu at NEO reflects all such influences.

There's a full ration of sushi, which we didn't get to try. Noodles and soups are plentiful. Curries can also be found. While tradition is honored, many of the offerings are modern and playful.

One such dish is the cumin pork loin ($17.95). Served on a bed of tiny, roasted Brussels sprouts and wedges of grilled kabocha squash, the thickly sliced tenderloin was crispy on the outside and juicy and tender inside--exactly how roasted pork should be. The whole dish was topped off with a salmon colored sauce made of peach kimchi. The smooth sauce added color to an otherwise plain looking dish and the sweet and tangy flavors took the dish to another level.

While there are several curries on the menu, the Malay lamb curry ($17.50) is the only one where the meat is cooked in the sauce. The spices used are house toasted to bring out the best. Huge chunks of toothsome lamb, green beans, eggplant and potatoes had been slow cooked in a savory gravy. The gravy held a slow heat that lingered at the back of the throat and made you want to scoop every last drop onto the white rice that is served with the dish.

The starters are a bit more traditional. The marinade in the satay permeated the nicely grilled bites of beef ($7.95). All that was needed to complete the dish was a brush of the golden peanut sauce that was hot with flecks of dried red chilis. The summer rolls ($6.75) were big and plump–we added shrimp–with shredded greens, slivers of cucumber and a tiny bit of tofu. These came with a hoisin peanut sauce that was in perfect balance. The squid salad ($7.50) was unusual in that it was served on a bed of greens with pickled Asian vegetables. I would've preferred more squid.

Noodle dishes come from all over Asia: pad Thai, lo mein, Singapore rice noodles. The mee goreng ($8.95 lunch, $12.95 dinner) that we ate is Malaysian to the core. Wheat noodles are tossed in a fragrant sauce rich with spicy shrimp paste. There's a bit of chicken, some tofu and a shrimp or two for good measure. Simple, yes, but it is the kind of dish that you think about on the way home or the next morning and certainly a must-order on any future visits.

Part of the menu includes other Asian favorites–mainly Chinese–but the kitchen doesn't slack off. In fact, the sesame beef ($8.95 lunch; $12.95 dinner), a throwaway dish at many places, was memorable. The beef had been battered and deep fried and then tossed in a dark, sticky sauce that didn't drown out the beefy flavor or turn the coating soggy. The hot and sour soup that comes with this dish was also a fine example of a ubiquitous soup. As with just about everything on the menu, the thick, dark, savory soup was in perfect balance.

Desserts are few but for the sake of research we tried the banana fritters ($6). The soft, melting bananas and the delicate, crunchy coating were enhanced by the cool lychee ice cream that is served alongside.

NEO makes the most of the high ceilings and huge wall spaces. Big pieces of art hang everywhere. Like the food, the décor is a blend of tradition and modernity. The most impressive piece is a gigantic carving of a street scene of people having a party of sorts. On another wall, tall bronze-toned ferns hang artistically on the wall above some booths. Other metal and wood pieces add color and dimension.

Wine and beer choices are interesting and there are cocktails, but no real bar to speak of. We enjoyed the house made ginger ale, which popped with spice and sparkle.

Service was friendly but the food, at least at dinner, took an incredibly long time to get to the table. It was worth the wait, but still a bit of a distraction.

At lunch we were almost the only people in the place. Dinner was only a little better. In fact by time we left we were the only ones in the place and the crew was starting to clear the tables (and this was pretty early in the evening). Closing time seems to vary depending on how busy it is. This would be disappointing if you stopped by for a dinner after shopping or late work.

All in all, NEO is a winner. I hope the small crowds that were there on our visits are a rarity. More people should know about this place.