Don’t come to Kota Kinabalu expecting to lose weight. The food scene is as diverse as its citizens, though the locals will emphasise that it’s the excellent seafood KK is famous for. You’ll find plenty of Chinese-style coffee shops, Indian and Malay restaurants and a growing number of smart Western and fusion options from cheap and cheerful to further up the culinary ladder.
If you’ve been stuck in the jungle on a diet of rice and noodles, KK will be a welcome sight. The only cuisine that seems to be missing somewhat from the mix is true Sabahan food. If you like your food spicy, you may find the food in Sabah rather toned down from that of Peninsular Malaysia.
The Kota Kinabalu Night Market should be your first port of call. On the waterfront, just to the north of the Central Market, as the sun dips the plastic tarps unravel. Once night falls, an orgy of saefood eating begins. Dozens upon dozens of stalls start to grill, steam, fry and saute.
While other food is available, it’s the seafood that is the star. You may rightfully be taken aback by the size and some of the varieties of the seafood you see here: Unsustainable fishing practices are sadly the norm around here. Bear in mind that your choice can have an impact on the fragile marine environment. We love seafood (and we are weak), but have downloaded a handy guide from the folks at WWF to help with a more sustainable choice. It’s available in Malay and Chinese too — print out a few and pass them around?
Wander around until you see what you like, then point and pick. Most vendors will have someone with enough English to take an order, and they’ll generally be able to suggest the best way to prepare different seafood. Confirm the price before ordering to avoid any misunderstandings. Take a seat at one of the plastic covered tables and enjoy. All kinds of delicious fruit drinks are available, often from a separate vendor — you’ll just get two bills at the end. Sometimes you can get a cold beer if you ask. The plastic teapot on the table filled with water is not for drinking — it’s for washing your hands. It usually sits on a perforated base, which you pour over as you wash.
For fresh seafood in slightly more upmarket surrounds, Alu-Alu Cafe near Jesselton Point serve sustainable seafood and organic produce cooked in a number of Chinese styles. Large billboards espousing sustainable fishing and organic farming line the walls of this simple formica table cafe. A mostly white alcove at the back is decorated with a wall of small pot plants — it’s cheery and adds to the vibe. Most fish is served as a fillet, and whole fish by weight are only available to large groups, as they only serve large fish. If you are a solo traveller, the prices are actually cheaper than on the menu (about half), as they are designed as dishes to share with a group, so they will make a smaller portion for you. We tried wok-fried fish fillet with dried chillies (27 ringgit), and the vegetable of the day — kailan with garlic (12 ringgit). Both were great with clean and fresh flavours. Their signature dish is the steamed fishhead curry (32 ringgit) but it’s for a minimum of three people. Alu-Alu Cafe also sell fresh organic vegetables and had a promotion when we visited — spend 100 ringgit and get a bag of fresh veggies.
Welcome Seafood is a local favourite. It looks more like an aquarium supply shop than a restaurant as all seafood is alive in tanks until cooked. The huge restaurant spans a whole block of Asia City and is divided into halal and non-halal sections. Select your seafood of choice, they weigh it, then you request one of the various cooking styles. This busy restaurant gets up to 2,000 diners per day.
Many local specialties can be sampled on Gaya Street, where some restaurants have been around so long they’re town institutions. There is a bit of competition with young blood now, as trendier cafes also do a roaring trade.
When asking locals for food recommendations, after they’ve offered all their favourite seafood options, the usual question they ask is, “Do you eat pork?” Yu Kee Bak Kut Teh has the goods when it comes to pork. Possibly the most crowded restaurant on Gaya Street, the throngs come for the signature herbal pork and pork organ bak kut teh. This Hokkien dish, literally meat bone tea, is made from simmering the pork (and bits) in a broth of star anise, cinnamon, cloves, Chinese angelica, fennel and garlic for hours. Here the menu lists pork meat, pork ribs, pork intestine, pork leg, pork liver, pork stomach, pork tail, pork kidney, and pork meatball — so if you can answer, “Do you eat pork?” in the affirmative, take your pick. It’s around 7 ringgit, with rice, veggies and soup all extra. If your answer is negative, an alternative bak kut teh restaurant, Nan Yang Cafe, is around the corner on Jalan Pantai and serves chicken and seafood versions.
Kota Kinabalu’s laksa hotspot Kedai Kopi Yee Fung is always busy and great for people watching. The Sabah-style laksa (medium/large for 7/8 ringgit) is pretty mild in spiciness, however the coconut milk sauce is creamy and well balanced. It comes with shredded chicken and thinly slices prawns, tender and delicious. Squeeze in some fresh lime to boost the taste. Ice lemon kitchai (kalamansi lime with salted plum) is a refreshing accompanying drink. The yellow and lime green decor make Kedai Kopi Yee Fung hard to miss. You’ll have to queue on a Sunday, as Gaya Street Market shoppers fight for a seat.
Fong Ip Cafe is a popular Chinese coffee shop with all kinds of breakfasts: Asian, Western and in-between. Durian on toast anyone? (4.80 ringgit) If you’re craving bread and eggs then this is the place to come, however it’s not quite Western style. Take your half-cooked boiled eggs and break them into a bowl, whip them together with soy sauce and white pepper, then break in some crackers or dip in some bread (3.40 ringgit). Goes well with a milky kopi or teh tarik.
Azlina Sulawesi is a convenient 24-hour Islamic restaurant. Close to the busy tourist area, it’s a great early breakfast option, when many others in the street are still closed. Malaysia’s favourite breakfast dish, roti canai, is very good here — flaky with the just the right amount of stretchiness (1.50 ringgit). Basic noodle and rice dishes (4-7 ringgit) are also on offer. Look for the large corner block with blue and yellow signage.
Party Play has got the hipster look down to a T in an airy cafe/bar with polished cement floors and street-art paintings on the pillars. The menu is mostly Western, although the smoked duck and Hoisin sauce pizza is a little more fusion (36 ringgit). Return customers swear by the desserts, particularly the chocolate lava cake. They have live music some nights.
Nearby Gaya Street, in Australia Place, has a string of stylish cafes and is turning what was once a printers and backpackers enclave into a trendy place to be seen.
Biru Biru serves as the reception for Borneo Backpackers. Catering to their main market from upstairs, they do all-day breakfast plus some interesting cocktails with a local twist (possibly can be had at the same time). Waffles with coconut ice-cream and gula melaka are a hit (12.90 ringgit). They are also one of the few places in the city you can hire a bicycle, preferably before the cocktails (35 ringgit per day).
Print Cafe is an interesting concept — it’s a print shop and cafe. This street has been the place to come for printing in KK for decades. So if you need any printing done (prices are competitive), come and have a coffee while you wait. There are lots of interesting things to look at including an old Heidelberg printing press. They can do 3D printing and laser engraving — their menu is engraved on plywood. The friendly staff in the cafe have skills with coffee foam that we’ve not seen the likes of before.
Just like its name, friendly Nook is tiny, as is their menu: coffee and cakes with a couple of savoury snacks including their popular scotch eggs (18 ringgit). We were tempted by the red velvet cake (9 ringgit).
Jalan Pantai used to be beachside (pantai is beach in Malay) before land was reclaimed to make more of modern-day Kota Kinabalu. Among other popular restaurants, Jalan Pantai has one of the oldest coffee shops in KK. Yuit Cheong Coffee Shop began trading in 1896 on Gaya Island, where the British North Borneo Company was based, before moving to Jesselton, modern-day KK, and is still operated by the same family. It’s a popular stop for roti kahwin (toast with butter and coconut jam), and after 11:00, deliciously tender satay with a rather sweet, not spicy peanut sauce.
Popular Ming Ge Cafe serves Chinese-style roast duck and a variety of hand-made noodles with two signature sauces to choose from — you can’t go wrong. Ming Ge Cafe’s friendly staff will help with your selection. We tried the Sarawak-stye noodle — you can’t ask for a better breakfast.
Sometimes sightseeing can take it out of you, and Royal Coconut can pick you back up with their simple and refreshing coconut and pandan drinks and desserts. They pretty much do one thing and do it well. The coconut pandan shake special comes with a scoop of ice cream (6 ringgit) — it’s every bit as good as it sounds. They also serve a very popular pandan coconut pudding served in the coconut shell (10 ringgit). The cute hole-in the-wall has astro turf flooring and log slab tables for that tropical feel — you almost feel Jalan Pantai is still beachside.
Other top eating spots are spread out around town. If you’re staying in the Banderran Berjaya area, Sri Latha Curry House is the place to go for breakfast. They have the reputation of making the best roti canai in KK. We stopped in for a coffee, but couldn’t resist the delicious banana-leaf meal (not served until lunch time). A banana leaf is slapped in front of you, then filled with a mound of rice, and a selection of tasty vegetable dishes. You also get some papadums and a cup of soup. You can order a meat version, which adds a curry. It’s too much food, although if you’re really hungry they keep topping up the rice and veggies until you are full (6 ringgit). It tastes better eaten with your hands. Sri Latha Curry House is only open during the day. Another long-running and popular banana-leaf restaurant Jothy’s Fish Head Curry and Banana Leaf Restaurant, in the Api Api centre, and it stays open in the evenings too.
After something more Western? Want to meet some other travellers, locals and expats? Head to El Centro opposite Wisma Merdeka (say Hi from Travelfish — they’re our friends). Pizza, tacos and salads are there, but try the mezze platter (20 ringgit), and you’ll be glad we sent you. They serve delicious pub-food and have the best bar in town. There’s a quiz on Wednesdays and live music some nights.
Once you’ve viewed the sunset from the waterfront, move on over to Gusto Food & Wine for some excellent authentic homestyle Italian. This is slow food made with love and reasonably priced wine. Relax, unwind and enjoy the view.
Vegetarian? Friendly hole-in-the-wall cafe, Vege Garden in Wisma Sabah gives you a choice of three or four local-style fresh and flavoursome vegetarian dishes with brown or white rice (5.50-7.50 ringgit). Open daytime only.
Latest Recipe, at Le Meridien, is the only place in town highlighting local Sabahan cuisine. Their “Tampatan Discovery” menu features traditional Kadazan dishes using a variety of wild jungle ingredients. Try hinava, marinated raw mackerel with lime, ginger and chillies (31 ringgit), or ayam bambangan, baked chicken with lemongrass (45 ringgit). Pickeled noonsom side dishes are tangy and pungent. Wash it down with lihing (rice wine) — Aramaiti! (cheers).
Alu-Alu Cafe: Lot 6, Tanjung Lipat, Jalan Gaya, Kota Kinabalu (next to Jesselton Point); T: (088) 230 842; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.alualucafe.com; open daily 10:00-14:00, 18:00-22:00.
Azlina Sulawesi: 103 Gaya Jalan, Kota Kinabalu; open 24 hours.
Biru Biru: Australia Place, 24, Lorong Dewan, Kota Kinabalu; T: (011) 412 3490; email@example.com; www.facebook.com; open daily 9:00-22:30.
El Centro: 32 Jalan Haji Saman (Opposite Wisma Merdeka), Kota Kinabalu; T: (014) 862 3877; www.elcentro.my; open Tues-Sun 12:00-24:00.
Fong Ip Cafe: 100 Jalan Gaya, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 213 618; www.facebook.com/Fong-IP-CAFE-150701350759/timeline; open Sun-Thurs 07:00-01:00, Fri-Sat 07:00-02:00.
Gusto Food & Wine: Lot 17, Anjung Samudra, The Waterfront, Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen, Kota Kinabalu, T: (016) 824 1829; open daily 11:00-23:00.
Jothy’s Fish Head Curry and Banana Leaf Restaurant: Lot 1, G9, Api-Api Centre, Lorong Api-Api, Jalan Centre Point, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 261 595; firstname.lastname@example.org; open daily 11:00-10:00.
Kedai Kopi Yee Fung: 27 Jalan Gaya, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 312 042; www.yeefunglaksa.com; open Mon-Fri 6:30-18:00, Sat-Sun 06:30-16:00.
Kota Kinabalu Night Market: Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens, Kota Kinabalu; open daily 17:30-23:00.
Latest Recipe: Le Meridien Hotel, Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens, Kota Kinabalu, (088) 322 238; email@example.com; www.lemeridienkotakinabalu.com; open daily 12:00-22:00.
Ming Ge Cafe: 28 Jalan Pantai, Kota Kinabalu; T: (016) 803 9280; open daily 6:30-14:00.
Nan Yang Cafe: 29 Jalan Pantai, Kota Kinabalu.
Nook: Australia Place, 8, Lorong Dewan, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 210 730; www.facebook.com; open Tues-Sun 9:00-23:00
Party Play: 117 Gaya Jalan, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 311 210; www.facebook.com/PartyPlayLC/timeline; open daily 10:00-24:00.
Print Cafe: Australia Place, 12, Lorong Dewan, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 235 678; www.orangeprintcafe.com; open daily 8:30-22:30.
Royal Coconut: 44 Jalan Pantai, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 347 065; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.facebook.com; Mon-Sat 12:00-22:00, Sun 10:00-22:00.
Sri Latha Curry House: 28 Jalan Berjaya, Banderran Berjaya, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 253 669; www.facebook.com; open daily 6:45-17:00.
Vege Garden: G17, Wisma Sabah, Jalan Tun Razak, Kota Kinabalu; T: (012) 820 3460; www.facebook.com; Mon-Sat 07:00-17:00.
Welcome Seafood: Lot G 15-18 Asia City, Jalan Coastal, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 447 866; email@example.com; www.wsr.com.my; open daily 12:00-24:00.
Yu Kee Bak Kut Teh: 74, Jalan Gaya, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 221 192; open daily 16:00-23:00.
Yuit Cheong: 50 Jalan Pantai, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 252 744; www.yc.weebly.com; open daily 6:00-19:00
Alcohol in Malaysia is heavily taxed, so a big night out can be expensive. Not all the locals drink, so you won’t be given a strange look for ordering a soft drink at the bar.
KK Waterfront is not only popular for viewing the stunning sunset, the revelry often continues late into the night — take your pick from the multicultural mix. The Cock & Bull has big-screen TVs, a pool table, live music every weekend and a mile-long cocktail menu. You’ll find Guinness and Kilkenny on tap next door at the Shamrock Irish Pub. The Aussie Barbecue and Bar, as the name suggests, do a fine barbecue. Locals tell us that they always end up in BED — B.E.D. nightclub (Best Entertainment Destination). It’s crowded with mostly young locals. A live Filipino band and DJs go late.
The newest club in town on our visit in March 2016 us Bar 999 — a vast venue with DJs and flashy light shows. Some nights have a cover charge. Their streetside bar is more subdued.
BB Cafe at Beach Street, a covered pedestrian street running between Jalan Pantai and Gaya Street, turns into a big bar at night with Filipino bands on stage most nights. Popular with locals and backpackers.
Shenanigan’s Fun Pub at Hyatt Regency Kinabalu has been around for decades. It’s hot and seething, sometimes with a live band added to the mix. Nightly themes.
999 Bar: 128A Kampung Air Bahru, Jalan Haji Yaacob, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 283 889, (016) 603 9650; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.999barkk.com; open daily 07:00-02:00.
The Aussie Barbecue and Bar: Lot 5, Anjung Samudra, The Waterfront, Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 243 449; open daily: 11:00-02:00.
BB Cafe: Beach Street, Kota Kinabalu.
Bed Night Club: The Waterfront, Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen, Kota Kinabalu; open Sun-Thurs 19:00-01:00, Fri-Sat 19:00-02:00.
Cock & Bull Bistro: Lot 3, Anjung Samudra, The Waterfront, Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 250 982; www.cocknbullbistro.com; open daily 15:00-01:00.
The Shamrock Irish Bar: Lot 6, Anjung Samudra, The Waterfront, Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen, Kota Kinabalu, T: (088) 249 829; open daily 12:00-01:30.
Shenanigan’s Fun Pub: Hyatt Regency, Jalan Datuk Salleh Sulong,, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 295 300; email@example.com, www.kinabalu.regency.hyatt.com; Mon-Thurs 17:00-01:00, Fri-Sat 17:00-02:00.
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.