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Small Miracles, Wrapped in Pancakes, at Let’s Makan


Sometimes a single dish justifies a restaurant’s existence. At Let’s Makan in Chinatown, it’s a snack: apam balik, a pancake that on the streets of Malaysia might be thick and porous or, as served here, dosa-thin, tender at the heart and so crisp at the edges that it stops just short of shattering.

A batter of flour and coconut milk is poured so it veils the pan — copper with a steel bottom, custom-made in Malaysia because an ordinary skillet won’t do; even, impartial heat is required, lest the sides of the pancake turn brittle.

It cooks slowly. (You can monitor its progress from your table.) Halfway through, peanuts go in, roasted, pulverized and primed with sugar. Nubs of butter are pressed on top, and then the pancake is folded in two and handed over in a paper sleeve, still hot.

In Malaysia, apam balik is found everywhere. In New York, we must salute it as a small miracle: The meld of nuts and butter is half crunch, half cream, the sugar near-liquid and oozy.

Other pancakes may be tinged with ube or pandan, whose flavor is all scent, calling to mind banana leaves and rice mid-steam; strewn with sweet corn or coconut flakes; and spread with kaya — a jam with the soul of custard, uniting coconut milk and caramelized sugar — or more pedestrian Nutella.

“We do not recommend more than one spread for the best experience,” the menu warns. Overdress the pancake and crispness is lost, as is the point.

The chef, Sow Khuan Lee, known as Anne, learned to cook at her family’s restaurant in Ipoh, Malaysia. But she resisted the restaurant life and came to New York in the late ’80s to escape it. “She wanted to follow her own path,” said her older daughter, Michelle Lam.

Still, the kitchen called to her. Ms. Lee started making kuih, Malaysian sweets, at home; it turned into a business. When a storefront opened up on Bayard Street in 2017, a family friend from Ipoh, Kenny Lee (no relation), proposed turning it into a snack shop.

In a more staid culture, these snacks would count as meals, like kolo mee, egg noodles inked with soy sauce and shallot-steeped oil, then overlaid with choy sum (flowering cabbage), ruffly wood-ear mushrooms and two kinds of pork, minced and incarnadine, tasting of smoke and honey.

Or pan mee, flat-band noodles, stretched by hand, submerged in a broth of long-simmered chicken bones and heaped with ground pork, mushrooms and fried anchovies stacked high, irreproachably crunchy. Or pork, mushrooms and noodles with just a spoonful of curry sauce, a dish whose comforts speak to whatever place you call home.

Ms. Lee runs the kitchen with the help of “all the aunties in the back,” her daughter said. Ms. Lam pitches in, too, between classes at law school, alongside Mr. Lee’s elder son, Jonathan, who just graduated from college with a degree in biology.

The menu’s less traditional items are the children’s contribution. Best is the Crazy Rich Sandwich, built of bak kwa, panels of grilled ground pork with the salty-sweet fervor of jerky but juicier, and pork rousong, the meat dried and shredded into a crackly haze, on a toasted potato bun slaked with Kewpie mayo.

There are a few disappointments: Nasi lemak is more scant than versions elsewhere in town, and overpowered by onions; the excellent kaya is immured in bread gone stiff.

But vegetable curry has a reliably rousing kick, and almost any dish benefits from a jolt of satisfyingly funky housemade sambal or pickled green finger chiles in rice vinegar and soy sauce — each condiment 25 cents and worth the ride.

Let’s Makan (Malaysian English for “Let’s eat”) is sleepy at midday. Two tables gleam with hundreds of pennies trapped under glass. Packages of kuih await by the cash register, varieties changing by the day, maybe springy layered rice-flour cakes or sticky rice cooked in coconut milk and the blue runoff of soaked butterfly pea flowers.

There is one more treat, at least for now: ais kacang, shaved ice plumped by evaporated milk and palm sugar syrup and buried under red beans, sweet corn, peanuts, tendrils of green jelly and palm seeds as fat as tears. It is every shade of sweet, cold, earthy and bright, and will disappear as fast as summer.

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