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Michigan’s Best Local Eats: Rasa Ria is

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KALAMAZOO, MI — It’s called fried rice on the menu.

It looks like typical fried rice, only darker.

The taste? This is not your typical rice. It’s richer. More complex. Heartier.

Welcome to Rasa Ria, the only restaurant in Kalamazoo specializing in Malaysian and Indonesian cuisine.

It’s a restaurant easy to overlook — a small eatery along West Main Street, at the east end of Kalamazoo’s Westwood neighborhood. The dining area has a half-dozen tables and 16 chairs. The bulk of the business is takeout.

But Rasa Ria has a devoted following, especially among international students at Western Michigan University.

Rasa Ria was opened almost 20 years ago by Roland and Mildred Gomes, natives of Malaysia. They first came to the United States in the 1980s to study at University of Dubuque in Iowa. Roland got his degree in psychology; Mildred, in information technology.

They returned to Malaysia, only to come back to America around 2004, at the urging of friends who encouraged them to settle in Kalamazoo. The Gomes and their three children did just that, and Roland and Mildred decided to open a restaurant that would cater to WMU’s Malaysian student population — then a sizable number because of WMU’s partnership with several Malaysian universities.

“There were a lot of Malaysian kids here at the college, so we decided to open and give it a try,” Roland Gomes said.

Rasa Ria soon became known for authentic Malaysian/Indonesian fare, as well as its generous portions and relatively low prices. Today, most entrees are either $10.85 or $9.95. The fried rice is $6.95 for a pint or $8.20 for a quart.

The key to keeping prices low: “We don’t employ people,” Roland Gomes said. “It’s just our family.”

Indeed, the entire restaurant staff consists of Roland, Mildred and their son, Ivor.

Still, for a small restaurant, it’s an extensive menu. There are more than three dozen entrees that include Beef Rendang, featuring chunks of beef and potato in a spicy sauce made with coconut milk, lemongrass and other spices; Butter Fried Chicken, with chicken and onions in a sauce flavored with butter, sweet soy sauce and lime juice; various curries; and noodle dishes such as Fried Kway Teow, a dish of stir-fried noodles with seafood, vegetables and bean sprouts.

Side dishes include roti bread (a crisp Indian-style pancake) and curry puffs, similar to the Indian-style samosa.

“It’s our recipes,” Roland Gomes said. “This is how we eat.”

The menu is a reflection of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic makeup, a country that comprises a large number of people with Indian or Chinese heritage, as well Malays.

“Malaysia is a melting pot,” Ivor Gomes said. “We have Malaysian Indian food, Malaysian Chinese food, traditional Malaysian food. There are all different flavors” because it’s a synthesis of several Asian cuisines.

One testament to their success, Mildred Gomes said, is the number of former WMU students and other former Kalamazoo residents who make a point of stopping by Rasa Ria when they’re in town.

“People come to this restaurant because of the food that we serve,” Mildred Gomes said. “You can’t find it elsewhere.”

Rasa Ria is located at 1921 W. Main St. in Kalamazoo, and is open Mondays through Fridays, noon to 8 p.m. The restaurant is closed Saturdays and Sundays. The phone number is 269-381-0788

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