There’s one table and one small booth inside HD Cuisine, a tiny Malaysian restaurant in a suburban Wheeling strip mall. Altogether there’s enough space to seat 11 people. If the weather’s nice and your timing is right, you can enjoy your nasi lemak, beef rendang, or Penang Hokkien mee at one of two tables set outside on either side of the front door looking out on the parking lot.
It might not look very promising, next door to the only two other tenants, a Dollar Tree and a pizza joint with video poker machines. But if you’re visiting for the first time—even if you’re only carrying out, like most customers do—the most reassuring thing you can do before you eat is ask to use the restroom.
You’ll be directed through a curtain into the kitchen along a narrow path between the stove and prep stations, which are occupied by four busy cooks, each one over the age of 50, with a combined kitchen experience of nearly 250 years. This is exactly who you want to be cooking your food.
Grandma Soo Teoh, at 81, has seniority, but her youngest son, Tony Tan, 53, is the head chef, who cut his teeth cooking for Hong Kong-based Star Cruises, and the Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Hotel in Penang. But the real boss of the operation is his oldest sibling, Lin Randazzo, who (along with Tony’s daughter Mindy) works the front of the house, and who might have welcomed you with a seemingly obvious question:
“Have you eaten yet?” she says. “We don’t ask, ‘How are you?’ We don’t say, ‘Hello.’ We see people in the market, we say, ‘Good morning. Have you eaten?’ If you say no, it’s, ‘Let’s go have coffee now. Let’s go to eat a bowl of curry mee now.’ They eat. They talk. Then they go each their own way to buy. It’s all about food.”
Randazzo is referring to Penang’s sprawling markets populated by single-dish specialists. Her own mother (Grandma Soo) was such a hawker for a time in a coffee shop in George Town, Penang, selling curry mee, the thick, double-noodle soup combo; coconut gravy swimming with shrimp, chicken, bean curd, and boiled eggs. Before that, her grandmother made huge pots of soup and congee for visitors to her grandfather’s medical practice. “Nyonya woman,” says Randazzo. “My grandma never left the kitchen. That’s her job.”
The Tan family’s ethnic background is a mix reflective of Malaysia’s melting pot demographics—particularly the Hokkien, Hakka, and Nyonya Chinese ethnic groups—and so is the food they grew up on. “In Chinese culture we have all these different dialects, but we don’t just focus on Chinese food, we have Malaysian food, and Indian food, in addition to Cantonese food, we have Hakka, Teochew, Mandarin.” Not to mention Thai, Portuguese, Dutch, Arabic, Indonesian, and Filipino.
Randazzo settled in Rogers Park in 1992, ran a travel agency with her first husband, and then worked in banking. At the time there was no Malaysian food to be had in Chicago, and her hunger fueled a dream of opening her own restaurant. She’s an accomplished cook herself but needed a professional. Even after the Flushing, New York-based Penang minichain opened its first midwestern outpost in Chinatown in the late 90s, she didn’t stop thinking about it, especially after she moved to the suburbs.
With this idea in mind, she sponsored Tony’s green card application, and in 2013 his experience landed him a job at the Penang in Arlington Heights. Meanwhile, life intervened; her first husband died, and she eventually remarried, while more and more of the Tan clan joined her here.
In late 2019 they decided the time was nigh. Randazzo locked in a low-rent lease at a former Middle Eastern catering space in the empty strip mall, and they began building out what has become HD Cuisine, shorthand for “Hawker’s Delight.” After two months the pandemic put the brakes on the project, but change in village code kept them busy rewiring the ceiling, delaying opening for more than a year.
But you could say that for all the economic stagnation the pandemic wrought, it didn’t slow a sudden surge in Malaysian food around town. First there was the husband-and-wife Instagram pop-up duo Kedai Tapao. Then Victor Low of Serai, the city’s only Malaysian restaurant, made it two, opening Lincoln Park’s Kapitan, specializing in Peranakan, aka Nyonya cuisine. Last January Randazzo hung up her sign and by mid-May she was open, still unprepared for the long lines of curious eaters that deluged her on Father’s Day wondering for months what the “Authentic Street Food” her sign touted was all about.
“I want to let people know these are family recipes,” says Randazzo. Among the mother and siblings, there are inevitable differences of opinion, but Tan knows how to execute them to scale in a restaurant setting. In the kitchen he’s the boss, but it’s hard to imagine him ever telling his mother she’s stuffing her pumpkin-pork bao wrong.
The six-page menu is filled with familiar pan-Asian dishes, but it’s important to zero in on the Malaysian ones, particularly two chicken dishes, ayam masak kicap and ayam masak merah; sturdy, full-flavored halal birds, hacked crosswise against the bone, hard fried, then braised in chili and soy, or an herbaceous chili-tomato sauce, respectively.
Otherwise the menu catalogs the most internationally represented Malaysian classics: murtabak, the Indian-style chicken-and-egg-stuffed, pan-fried pancake; or roti paratha, each served with a cup of curried dal. There’s thick beef rendang, its smoldering spice concentrated in its dry braise; and rich coconut milk-based lamb and chicken curries. There are smoky noodle stir-frys, like ribbony char koay teow or the relatively delicate mee goreng; and deep bowls of noodle soup such as Grandma Soo’s curry mee, or the shrimp-based Hokkien mee, each covering the textural bases with a thick egg noodle and thin rice vermicelli combo.
But the menu alone doesn’t reflect what this little kitchen is capable of. It seems like every inch of the walls and windows is covered in full-color posters of less common specials, most of which are available anytime—or at least by advance ordering. (You can also find many on the website, designed by Randazzo’s daughter Michelle.) There’s the Penang assam laksa noodle soup, its broth packing a mackerel punch, and seasoned—when she can get them—with torch ginger lilies. And there’s mee rebus, prawn fritters and noodles in a sweet potato gravy, along with the rich Hakka pork belly and yam dish kiu nyuk. The nasi lemak, Malaysia’s national dish, is made Nyonya-style, the coconut rice grains tinted blue with butterfly pea flower, along with dried anchovy, peanuts, cucumbers, and a heaping serving of ayam Kapitan, or captain’s chicken curry.
Grandma Soo salts the duck eggs for the minced pork congee pei tan chok, and she stuffs bao with barbecue pork, sweet custard, pumpkin, and dried bean paste, while Tony keeps tight control of the desserts, such as the painstakingly constructed, multicolored seven-layer rice flour pudding kuih lapis.
For such a tiny space there’s a tremendous output of uncommon Malaysian food, all prepared with an ineffable sense of the homemade. Meanwhile, this small window on the Tan family’s food is steadily opening wider. Randazzo’s contemplating expanding into the vacant storefront next door, and her brother has a lot more specials up his sleeve, including a Thanksgiving feast: an Indian-style grouper head braised in coconut curry. On request he’ll do a whole fish version too (sourced from nearby Boston Fish Market).
“Nowhere can you find this,” says Randazzo. “If people are bored of turkey they can order this.”
27 Huntington Lane, Wheeling