The New Neo Thing

A successful expansion of a Malaysian favorite

It all starts with family.

Six weeks ago, at dinner chez my little brother and his big family, my nephew Charlie was talking to me about an upcoming school trip to Europe this summer and some of his Salpointe classmates. He stopped for a moment and I could sense the wheels turning in his mind. "Uncle John," he asked, "have you ever eaten at Neo? A friend of mine's aunt and uncle own it and it's supposed to be pretty good." I said I hadn't, yet, but that I had always been a fan of their other restaurant, Seri Malaka on East Broadway Boulevard. I filed his tip away in my mind and we all went on to other things. He's a clever seed-planter, that Charlie.

In the time since, I have eaten at Neo of Melaka--a lot, and that in spite of the parking-lot madness that seems to characterize the tony string of restaurants and shops on the northwest corner of Campbell Avenue and River Road. Forget trying to find a space and give your vehicle over to the valet-parking people. It's easy and you'll get to the main event faster and more serenely.

I knew Neo was promising the first night Andrew and I were there when I saw a number of old and familiar friends at other tables--friends who know what they're about in a restaurant. It's a relatively small and intimate dining room, and it's hard to miss seeing someone you know. It also makes it handy to take a look at all the food-disguised-as-art being carried from kitchen to tables. Here, happily, the food is as great as the art, which is why I've been delighted to return with my nearest and dearest: Shari and Harper for a dinner, Noah for lunch, my Gemini selves on a couple of other occasions. It's the fusion of flavors and the long pedigree of family recipes that make for a memorable experience.

There are a handful of Tucson restaurants I know and like which have in common the ability to consistently offer up dishes that explode the tastebuds with rich, definable marriages of flavors and textures. There are a number of very good places to eat, and we all have our fave dishes we yearn for at one locale or another. But it's the special kitchen that makes you eager to experiment with something new and untried and to do so with certain expectations of joy. Neo is such a place.

"Rosalind's mother is such a wonderful cook, and the recipes we have are so special," says Chris Yap, who with his wife, Rosalind, owns and runs Neo and Seri. Neo, by the way, is Rosalind's family name. Their core staff is filled out with son Allen and daughters Tina, Audrey and Michelle. The family is Baba and Nyonya, a rich blend of Malay and Chinese emigrants to the Straits of Malacca, the so-called "end of the monsoons" in the Malay Archipelago. The Baba and the Nyonya people never converted to the Muslim religion and retained the roots of their Chinese heritage. The luck of this geographic location resulted in a virtuous melding of Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures, overlaid in later years by Portuguese and British influences. It was the heart of the spice trade, and this richness characterizes what comes out of the Melaka kitchens: Malay heat, Chinese traditions, pungent curries, all served up in a Continental environment softened by the cultural richness of Southeast Asia. "We want to establish Malaysian cuisine as world-class, affordable cuisine," says Yap, simply.

That's a great if challenging goal, but you have to feel the family is up to it.

Chris and Rosalind met in London in 1971. He was an accountant and she was a staff nurse--with a mother who was a wonderful cook, remember, and an obviously prodigious memory for recipes and dishes. They came to the United States in 1990. "When I came to the United States, I couldn't get a job," says Yap. "And when dollars are dwindling, you need to be bold." So they took that rich cultural background, that family legacy of great food and wonderful recipes, and a dedication to hard work, and they boldly opened Seri Melaka in 1991.

Between the two places, they now have a staff of 30 or so, including the kids. Family members are always at both restaurants, and there is a lot of daily travel back and forth between East Broadway Boulevard and East River Road. Rosalind is the wizard behind the sea of sauces. When he's not cooking, Chris does the books and constantly develops and redevelops procedures. As might be expected, there are no eight-hour days, but a lot of 12- to 15-hour ones. Is this a sane way to live for a man who confesses to being happy as a systems analyst?

"It's really not insanity," says Chris, smiling. "It will be the foundation that allows the family to continue to grow." Allen, who graduated from the University of Arizona in 1999 with an Management and Information Systems focus (Chris, by the way, went to school with his son and is also a UA graduate), is slated to take over the operations at Neo. And if it all goes as planned, promises Chris, they will expand to Phoenix. "The opportunity is here to do almost anything."

The next time or three I am at Neo, I plan to close my eyes and order whatever my finger lands on in the menu. Not that I have been anything but happy with the Nasi Lemak sample platter (achar, egg, beef rendang, sambal shrimp and coconut rice with peanuts and crisp cucumber), the Ahi Masak Merah (seared tuna with a spicy mango chutney and kaffir lime leaf, the spicy scallops salad), the Chicken Rendang (melt-in-your-mouth chicken cooked with galangal, lemongrass, tumeric and coconut cream), the Crispy Sesame Beef and the Wok-Fried Lo Mein. Or an amazingly spicy hot-and-sour soup that can also be had with a vegetarian base. I've liked them all.

I just know that whatever turns up is going to be one of the best things I've eaten.

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