Where to eat and drink: Johor Bahru

Johor Bahru: Where to eat and drink

A one-night stopover in JB is too little time to sample all the great tastes this delicious town has to offer, so you’re going to have to decide if you want to stick with the traditional flavours that have been pleasing the locals for decades (and more) or go the hipster route, and give one of the funky innovative new joints a try.

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You may have to queue at the more popular places, particularly on weekends when Singaporeans hop over the causeway specifically to indulge in JB’s gastronomic delights. If you’re not that hungry you could easily survive on coffee and ice cream—we’re not sure where we’ve last seen such a concentration of establishments selling both. Perhaps you should stay longer… Check opening times, as many spots close one day per week.

Fish-head curry is the dish served up at popular Kam Long. Photo by: Sally Arnold.
Fish-head curry is the dish served up at popular Kam Long. Photo: Sally Arnold

Restoran Kam Long is one of JB’s most popular joints, serving just one dish, fish-head curry, for more than 30 years. You’ll have to queue, but before 11:00 the queue is shorter. Fish heads are available in three sizes: small for 24 ringgit, medium 35 ringgit and large 48 ringgit. If the head makes you squeamish, the tail is a tad more expensive. The soupy curry doesn’t overpower the subtle flavours of the fresh red snapper heads and is served with veggies and fried tofu skin to soak up the sauce. Order extra veggies for six ringgit. Officially Restoran Kam Long is open 08:00 to 16:00 daily, but they have often sold out by 14:30. Look for the queue or wafting curry smells on Jalan Wong Ah Fook between Jalan Siu Chin and Jalan Siu Nam near the JB Hotel.

The next longest queue in JB is at the Hiap Joo Bakery and Biscuit Factory. This outlet has been baking bread and cakes in their traditional wood-fire oven since 1919. The main drawcards are kaya (coconut) buns and banana bread. The place is so popular they post the baking schedule outside the bakery and on their Facebook page (see below). The buns are baked one time per day, so once sold out, you’ll have to come back the next day. The banana bread (more cake-like than bread) however comes piping hot out of the oven every 10 minutes, and is usually gone within five.

The Hiap Joo Bakery and Biscuit Factory. Photo by: Sally Arnold.
The Hiap Joo Bakery and Biscuit Factory. Photo: Sally Arnold

Just as famous, Salahuddin Bakery also bakes in a traditional wood oven. This bakery is a little newer, but no novice—they have been in business since 1937. Their larger shopfront displays a wide range of goodies. We like the delicious flakey and crisp curry puffs. It’s worth dropping in just to see the museum-like interior, which doesn’t look like it has changed since day one.

Along the same street, Restoran Hua Mui and It Roo Cafe fight it out as to who serves the best Hainanese chicken chop in town. It Roo Cafe claims the official title, having been awarded the “Best Chicken Chop in Malaysia” by The Star newspaper in 2003, but others argue Hua Mui’s is better. The It Roo version comes grilled or schnitzel-like, fried in batter with black pepper or mushroom sauce, served with thick wedges and coleslaw (16 ringgit). Hua Mui’s version only comes fried, but is 10 sen cheaper. Both popular cafes offer old-style ambience and serve a selection of other authentic local flavours and Western favourites too.

Salahuddin Bakery, appearing much as it would have in 1937. Photo by: Sally Arnold.
Salahuddin Bakery, appearing much as it would have in 1937. Photo: Sally Arnold

Near the corner of Jalan Dhoby, by the Indian mosque, Restoran Reaz Corner will keep you sustained 24 hours per day with their terrific curries, roti and nan dishes. This mamak (South Indian muslim food) stall had sold out of their famous nasi briyani Bombay when we stopped by. Cheap, cheerful and popular.

For a taste of Melakain JB, Asam Pedas Melaka dishes up claypot delights (for around 10-20 ringgit) in a simple and clean, whitewashed setting. Next door, Nasikk offers a tasty selection of self-service Malay dishes along with a handful of cooked-to-order rice and noodle dishes. A food cart inside the restaurant whips up temping mee selup too. We like the slogan of this cute, hipster-style local joint: “nasi (rice) is nice, but nasikk is nicer”.

Does It Roo have the best chicken chop in town? You decide! Photo by: Sally Arnold.
Does It Roo have the best chicken chop in town? You decide! Photo: Sally Arnold

On Jalan Pasar, near the corner of Jalan Trus, Kedai Minuman Kok Yow Young is hole-in-the-wall that’s been selling traditional herbal tea for over a century, now with its third generation of staff manning the stall. Secret special blends are available for many ailments, and if they’re too bitter can be washed down with a glass of simple chrysanthemum tea.

Over on (somewhat seedy) Jalan Meldrum, a row of local cafes and stalls fill up late afternoon. This area offers more Chinese and non-halal Malay choices than elsewhere, you can enjoy a cold beer and some wild pig (babi hutan) (we even saw monitor lizard or biawak on one menu). We went with one of the more traditional flavours and tried a terrific Sarawak laksa at Kedai Kopi O3.

If you’re feeling adventurous, after dark Meldrum Walk, a narrow back alley around the corner from Jalan Meldrum, opens its night market. You’ll be spoilt for choice as you elbow your way though the busy stalls.

When in Rome... Photo by: Sally Arnold.
When in Rome... Photo: Sally Arnold

We didn’t try, but were recommended kacang pool, a popular beef and bean dish based on Middle eastern ful medames available a little out of town at Restoran Kacang Pool Haji near the Larkin Bus station. The owner developed the recipe after a trip to Mecca. We were assured it’s worth the trip.

If local tastes appeal, but street stall ambience is a little too intimidating, Nyonya Leaf dishes up popular street food and an eye-bulging selection of Peranakan cakes in its cute, squeaky clean cafe inside City Square Mall.

Time for a tipple? Try Malaysia’s traditional alcoholic thirst quencher, tuak (toddy), the fermented sap of the coconut flower. Available from the Coconut Wine Shop, which has been operating since 1920.

The Replacement Lodge and Kitchen serves up excellent modern cuisine. Photo by: Sally Arnold.
The Replacement Lodge and Kitchen serves up excellent modern cuisine. Photo: Sally Arnold

Johor Bahru’s Heritage district around Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Dhoby has in recent years turned into a bit of a hipster enclave, with cafes and restaurants (and those ubiquitous ice-cream shops) dotted amid the long-established trades and local kopitiams. Popular (read: queue inevitable) The Replacement Lodge and Kitchen rustles up excellent all-day brunch, salads and coffee, as well as freshly made churros with a range of dipping sauces. We tried the chef’s salad with smoked salmon and saluted mushrooms (18.90) and were delighted with our choice. Next time we’ll go for the soft shell crab bao with fries. At the time of research this cafe was THE hippest place in town (obviously, it won’t be by the time you’re reading this). The Replacement offers stylish (but small) accommodation in their upstairs guesthouse too.

Double-storey corner cafe Roost is full of comfortable nooks and crannies stuffed with recycled and repurposed furnishings, great for a quiet coffee or a cold beer. We love the splash of tropical foliage both real and painted in the downstairs seating nook. Try one of the “bowls”: rice, noodles, potato or salad with toppings (16–24 ringgit). Up the road, cosy Flowers in the Window is run by the same folk. Look for the pretty leafy facade and round window. The leafy theme extends to the menu, with herb-infused drinks and floral garnishes. Mains (14-29 ringgit) are mostly meaty, with offerings like miso beef stew with sourdough toast or Thai salmon burger in charcoal bun (both 28 ringgit), but vegetarians will find something to munch on too. The menu features seasonal weekly specials.

Flowers in the Window is a relaxed and leafy spot. Photo by: Sally Arnold.
Flowers in the Window is a relaxed and leafy spot. Photo: Sally Arnold

Bev C operates a funky fashion boutique downstairs and hip cafe upstairs. The mostly black and white theme includes the fashion, decor and food—even the croissants are black (from charcoal). If you like iced coffee, but prefer your caffeine hit undiluted, Bev C’s signature iced coffee is made with espresso ice cubes with a choice of plain milk (14.90 ringgit), chocolate and milk or caramel and milk (both 15.90). As the ice melts, the coffee flavour only gets stronger. The designer details are everywhere, right down to the letterpress business card.

Fork and Dagger dish up local style stir-fried rice and noodles along with a range of pasta and Western favourites (6—22.90 ringgit). Drinks on offer have unusual flavours: A corn smoothie is called “I miss you fat” (7.90 ringgit). You’ll get a spoon with your fork, not a dagger.

Sometimes it has to be Thai, even when you’re in Malaysia. Amphawa serves Thai “boat noodles” in a hip setting. Like the noodles served off the boats in Amphawa floating market, the small bowls (1.90 ringgit) are designed to try several—stack them up and enjoy! Don’t forget mango and sticky rice for dessert (9.90 ringgit).

Hipsters ate here. Photo by: Sally Arnold.
Hipsters ate here. Photo: Sally Arnold

Let’s Get Cereal takes hipster to the extreme and lets you tuck into a bowl of CocoPops for dinner if you wish. You could probably turn up in your pyjamas. Choose from a range of local (3 ringgit) or imported (5 ringgit) cereal, add toppings and your choice of milk, or go with one of their signature mixes. Americano mixes Reese’s Puff, Cap’n Crunch, pumpkin seeds and walnuts (11.90) or maybe Cookie Monsta is more to your taste: Cookie Crisp, Honey Star, gummy candy and crushed Oreos (7.90 ringgit). Be prepared for a sugar hit. Milks include full-cream, low-fat, strawberry, chocolate or soy. Kids and the young at heart will love it.

A little bit north of the hipster precinct, Faculty of Caffeine operated by The Replacement Lodge and Kitchen crowd is located next door to Gurdwara Sahib Sikh Temple. Along with decent coffee and an innovative fusion menu, they offer set lunch deals weekdays from 12:00–15:00 (16.90 ringgit).

Behind a cloud of smoke on Jalan Ibrahim, you’ll find a row of shisha restaurants, popular with young locals. Food menus are fairly standard—it’s about the puff. Most open late and some entertain live music. Look for Aladdin Cafe, Al Fayeed Cafe and Hookah District.

Milkshake at Shakespeare's.  Photo by: Sally Arnold.
Milkshake at Shakespeare's. Photo: Sally Arnold

I scream, you scream. For smoke of a different variety, the super-friendly staff at TIP, aka The Ice Cream Project, create fresh ice cream while you wait with smoking liquid nitrogen (14 ringgit). The ice cream is dairy, but adds no rennet, gelatine, egg or preservatives. Don’t trip over the cute-as-a-button toy-town sized pink forklift used to carry the liquid nitrogen canisters. Next door, candy pink Koone sports the coolest (sorry) decor of JB’s ice cream parlours. Enter a restrained fantasy world where ice-cream shaped light bulbs hang from the ceiling and order a Japanese-inspired soft serve. Dry ice adds smokey drama to your Hokkaido matcha (large 11 ringgit, mini 6 ringgit).

If you prefer your frozen desserts dairy free, the Malaysian chain Sangkaya is nuts about coconuts and have a branch just across the road. Coconut ice cream, coconut drinks, coconut smoothies. Go nuts. Not exactly ice cream (although they do serve it), Shakespeare Milkshakes make thick and scrumptious milkshakes (we’d call them thickshakes). Enjoy with a side of waffles and soft serve. Need we add, the decor is snappy.

Steep taxes on alcohol in Malaysia means cheep booze is hard to come by, but not in JB—head to Berjaya Waterfront (aka The Zon), a duty-free zone 10 minutes’ drive from the centre of town to find clubs, bars and karaoke.

Al Fayeed Cafe: Jalamn Ibrahim, Johor Bahru; T: (0197) 808 001; www.facebook.com; open daily 11:00–03:00.
Aladdin Cafe: 45 Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Bahru; T: (0137) 798 001; www.facebook.com.
Amphawa: 32 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Johor Bahru; T: (0755) 96 440; www.facebook.com; open Sun–Thurs 11:30–22:30, Fri–Sat 11:30–23:30.
Asam Pedas Melaka: 54 Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Bahru, T: (0132) 000 450; open daily 12:00–23:00.
Bev C: 54 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Johor Bahru; T: (0167) 253 530, (0722) 13530; www.bevcclothingbrand.com/cafe; open Sun–Thurs 12:00–20:00, Fri–Sat 12:00–22:00.
Coconut Wine Shop: Jalan Sulaiman, Johor Bahru; open 10:00–16:00.
Faculty of Caffeine: 106 Jalan Trus, Johor Bahru; www.facebook.com; open daily 09:00–18:00.
Flowers in the Window: 9 Jalan Dhoby, Johor Bahru; T: (0167) 767 489; open Wed-Mon 10:00-21:00.
Fork & Dagger: 11 Jalan Dhoby, Johor Bahru; T: (019) 709 0366; www.facebook.com; open Tues-Sun 11:00-23:40.
Hiap Joo Bakery and Biscuit Factory: 13 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Johor Bahru; T: (0722) 31 703; www.facebook.com; open Tues-Sat 07:30–17:30, Mon 11:00–17:30, Sun 08:30-sold out.
Hookah District: Jalamn Ibrahim, Johor Bahru; T: (0127) 789 441; https://www.facebook.com/Al-Fayeed-Cafe-183579611782188/; open daily 19:00–03:00.
It Roo Cafe: 17 Jalan Dhoby, Johor Bahu; T: (0722) 27 780; open daily 10:00-21:30.
Kedai Kopi O3: Jalan Meldrum, Johor Bahru.
Kedai Minuman Kok Yow Young: 4 Jalan Pasar, Johor Bahru; open Mon-Sat 10:00-01:00.
Koone: 30, Jalan Dhoby, Johor Bahru; T: 0 16-934 4850; www.facebook.com; open Sun, Mon, Tues, Thurs 12:00-20:00, Fri-Sat 12:00-22:00.
Let’s Get Cereal: 18 Jalan Dhoby, Johor Bahru; www.facebook.com; open Sun, Mon, Wed 12:00–22:00, Thurs–Sat 12:00–24:00.
Meldrum Walk night market: open daily 17:00v24:00.
Nasikk: 56 Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Bahru; T: (0722) 25600; www.facebook.com; open Tues–Fri 07:00–23:00, Sat–Sun 12:00–24:00.
Nyonya Leaf: City Square Mall, 106–108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, Johor Bahru; T: (0733) 21100, (0125) 228 096; www.facebook.com; open daily 10:00–22:00.
Restoran Hua Mui: 131 Jalan Trus, Johor Bahru; T: (072) 247 364; www.facebook.com; open daily 08:30–17:30.
Restoran Kacang Pool Haji: 12 Jalan Dato Jaafar, Taman Dato Onn, Larkin, Johor Bahru; T: (0137) 377 997; www.facebook.com; open daily 07:00–24:00
Restoran Kam Long: 74 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, Johor Bahru; T: (0167) 528 382, (0167) 962 288, (0162) 031 610; open daily 0800–16:00.
Restoran Reaz Corner (Azmi Corner): 24A Jalan Dhoby, Johor Bahru; T: (0137) 440 089; www.facebook.com; open 24 hours.
Roost: 14 Jalan Trus, Johor Bahru; T: (0127) 965 908; open Wed–Mon 13:00–24:00.
Salahuddin Bakery: 26 Jalan Dhoby; T: (0722) 73736; Sat–Thurs 08:00–14:00.
Sangkaya: 14 Jalan Dhoby, Johor Bahru; T: (0135) 882 218; sangkaya.co; open Mon–Fri 12:00–23:00, Sat–Sun 12:00–24:00.
Shakespeare Milkshakes: 9 Jalan Trus, Johor Bahru; T: (0164) 218 530; www.facebook.com; open Mon, Tues, Thurs, Friday 12:00–23:00, Sat-Sun 12:00–24:00.
TIP, The Ice Cream Project: 31 Jalan Dhoby, Johor Bahru; T: (07) 300 7286; open Sun, Tues–Thurs 15:00–22:00, Fri–Sat 15:00–04:00.
The Replacement Lodge & Kitchen: 33/34 Jalan Dhoby, Johor Bahru; T: (0164) 218 530; www.facebook.com; open daily 09:00–20:00.

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Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.