When I first came to Kuala Lumpur, a workmate of mine offered to take me to their favourite Chinese eatery. I readily accepted the offer, but as we entered the place, I began to have second thoughts. Our “restaurant” was a collection of plastic tables and stools, located inside a car park. Once the food arrived though, my doubts evaporated. This was seriously good stuff — Chinese food with a distinct Malaysian twist. No wonder the place was packed.
It took me a while to realise that the “car park restaurant”, as it become known to myself and my friends, was not a one-off, but part of a Malaysian culinary tradition — the Chinese coffee shop. Contrary to what the name suggests, only a fraction of their business involves selling coffee, although “beer and pork shop” would probably not go down so well in a Muslim-majority country like Malaysia.
The coffee shop is often two distinct businesses — which makes sense when one remembers that Malaysians like to eat right around the clock. During the day, stalls are leased out to individual vendors, who specialise in one or two dishes, such as curry noodle soup. Most single meals will come in at under five ringgit, so it’s a cheap and tasty introduction to Malaysian Chinese food. At night, the main kitchen comes to life, and the restaurant will offer a range of dishes, intended for sharing between two or more diners.
The most important thing to remember about coffee shops is that they are all about the food. Decor, service, comfort, location … all are secondary considerations. Everything is geared up to selling five-star food at reasonable prices. Each coffee shop has its own specialities, which customers will travel miles to enjoy. But because everything is cooked to order, they can knock out any Asian dish imaginable.
Anyone used to Cantonese or Peking styles of cooking will be surprised by coffee shop offerings. Although the strongest influence comes from Chinese cuisine, the food has also been shaped by Malay and Indian flavours. This means it is generally spicier than normal Chinese fare. For some dishes, such as Guinness pork, the influences come from even further afield.
KL has dozens of great coffee shops, so what follows is an entirely personal selection of recommendations.
Probably the best place to start off is Wong Ah Wah (aka the “car park restaurant”), located at the Jalan Tong Shin end of Jalan Alor. Rightly famous for their chicken wings, they also do superb crab and prawn dishes. Good English is spoken at Wong Ah Wah, and they are happy to adapt dishes to suit dietary preferences.
Just round the corner, down an alley off Jalan Tong Shin, is probably KL’s most unusual coffee shop, the Blue Boy Vegetarian Centre. It’s the best place in town to try vegetarian versions of Malaysian Chinese staples, like char kuay teow (fried spicy flat noodles).
For the more adventurous, the massively popular Siu Siu is well worth the taxi fare to Taman Seputeh. Their specialities include clay pot crab (spicy crab on a bed of rice, cooked in an earthenware pot) and four vegetables with belacan (spicy shrimp paste) sauce.
Also meriting a visit is Restoran OK, in Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI), a classic suburban coffee shop. They are best known for their seafood, done any which way you can think of, as well as sizzling dishes, such as tofu in curry sauce. Very good English is spoken here, so the lack of a menu should not present a problem.
Wong Ah Wah
9 Jalan Alor (in the car park), Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
Blue Boy Vegetarian Centre
Jalan Tong Shin (behind Corona Inn hotel), Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
11-15 Lorong Syed Putra Kiri, Taman Seputeh (near Robson Heights), Kuala Lumpur
Jalan Aminuddin Baki (near junction with Jalan Burhanuddin Helmi), Taman Tun Dr. Ismail, Kuala Lumpur
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 26th February, 2015.