The Ibu Oka of fish
Just off the beach on Jalan Hang Tuah
Warung Mak Beng in Bali’s Sanur is a one-dish restaurant that draws in the hungry locals, domestic visitors and occasional traveller by the table-ful. For 28,000 rupiah, you’ll get a fried, meaty piece of ikan laut goreng — in this case snapper steak — with a wonderful smoked sambal and kaffir lime on the side, fish head (or vegetable) soup and a plate of rice.
A few no-fuss wooden tables and benches serve their purpose and a one-page menu explains the special and lists drinks — soft drinks are 5,000 rupiah, orange juice 8,000 rupiah, small Bintang 18,000 rupiah. Photos of visitors adorn the walls; history is important in this place, which claims to have been around in the same location just off the beach since 1941 — that’s a long time for a restaurant to run anywhere, let alone in Bali, where there’s not really a tradition of dining out.
The fish — the last time I actually asked what it was the waitress told me snapper, though she may have said “like” snapper, it’s true — is really cooked to a tender bite, with a salty, crunchy crust that begs to be dipped into the fiery sambal. Plenty of napkins on the table mean you can indulge in the sauce and simply wipe your crying face while you keep going. Squirt your kaffir lime into the sambal or onto your fish; omit it altogether if you like but it gives a mouth-puckering tang that rounds out the flavours on the plate. The fish head soup — I haven’t tried the vegetable — is somewhat oily, a pleasant counterbalance to the drier fried fish; flake the darker meat off with your fork and pop the bones out and to the side so you can enjoy the sliced gourd and broth as well.
While I wouldn’t travel across the island for a meal here, if I’m in Sanur I definitely make the effort to get here. If you’re heading to Nusa Lembongan, you can squeeze in a meal between your pick up by one of the boat operators and the actual boat departure. Sometimes you’ll even have enough time to pop into the Museum Le Mayeur as well — from Mak Beng, head to the beach, take a right, and it’s a short walk along, on your right again. I like to imagine that perhaps Le Mayeur popped around here himself for a meal occasionally.
In a way it’s reassuring that a place that’s been around for an age and is so popular hasn’t changed what it does, nor branched out to, say, create a few franchises elsewhere on the island.
Prices here are a bit higher than what you’d pay at a less renowned warung, but I’m not going to complain about spending around $3 on one of my favourite meals.
One last observation: you need to walk through the Mak Beng kitchen to get to the bathroom. At a lot of warungs that’s quite enough to put you off your meal, but I’m pleased to report that I haven’t found that the case here, with it being rather clean — something of a bonus.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 3rd May, 2015.