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Ahwa Coffeeshop

1/2It's a rarity for me, but I'm going to have a go at this one in (blurry) photos because I happen to have to have so many from this particular meal. I spent Merdeka with some equally food obsessed near-strangers I met on the internet who were kind enough to chauffeur us around and show us the best of Kuala Lumpur. We never wouldve found this suburban hawker center in Petaling Jaya without them.


Hokkien mee. We also had a version with rice vermicelli, which isn't
pictured. Lardy, greasy goodness.


Squid with kang kung (water spinach). It's peanutty.

Or chien (oyster omelet)


Chicken satay. I think–there was also beef at the table.


Balitong, a kind of snail/whelk creature that's nearly impossible
to suck out


Bbq stingray with a tasty condiment made of cincalok (fermented
shrimp–James thought it was fish sauce, which is for the best)
and lime juice.

Ahwa Coffeshop * near Jalan 222, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia


This almost ended up being our most expensive meal (top honors went to Mortons in HK) at $150, half the bill coming from a pricy (for us) bottle of wine. And we almost didnt find the place. I dont know what it is with Malaysia, Singapore and directions. No one seems to know street names or addresses. They tend to go by landmarks. Our cab driver dropped us off randomly in the Bukit Bintang shopping area, which isnt the same as Changkat Bukit Bintang, luckily we were able to track that specific street down (we were standing right on it, but had no idea because signage is severely lacking in Malaysia. And on top of things, the public maps You Are Here dot was completely inaccurate) despite addresses not being in chronological order.

This was Merdeka, Malaysias Independence Day , so half the city was out and about celebrating. (I swear, if you squinted and ignored the lack of blaring salsa and reggaeton, youd think it was Puerto Rican Day.) The atmosphere was hot, steamy, chaotic and overwhelming– the dead opposite of Frangipani. Two different worlds, for sure.

Even the crappiest NYC restaurants are full any given night of the week. Not so, in Asia. There was huge rigmarole with reservations, needing a number to confirm and reach us when we didnt have one. I think they just like following rules (same thing happened in HK). I'd counted on crazy fusion and high for Kuala Lumpur prices. What I hadnt expected, and encountered numerous times during our travels, was that wed practically have the entire restaurant to ourselves.

When we arrived, the entire lofty space was occupied by a one couple. The modern opulence almost feels wasted by the silence and lack of audience. Frangipanis centerpiece is an enormous, dark, reflecting pool surrounded by tables with plush chairs. You are reminded not to step into it, as its so still and glassy. It did indeed look like marble, but I couldnt help wondering who would dare step out of bounds in such a sterile, reserved atmosphere. Service is big in S.E. Asia. Too big for me. You are constantly being watched from angles and corners, hovered over while eating and stood behind while paying the bill. I'm not sure if its part of the culture or a lack of patrons for the staff to attend to.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I cant really remember what I ate, which is absolutely no testament to the forgettable-ness of the food. It was just complex in comparison to much of the hawker food we ate, lots of ingredients, unusual pairings, the menu descriptions consisted of large (intentionally) humorous paragraphs per dish, which would likely draw criticism in NYC. I do know that my entrée involved tea smoked duck breast, I had caviar on my appetizer and the dessert contained chocolate and banana mousses. Frangipani would really benefit from having a website (Malaysia stuck me as lacking in web presence).

The dining experience left me feeling a little traumatized. I remember from visiting Bangkok in 03 that I vowed to avoid upscale restaurants if I visited again, despite their good value. Mainly because of the stifling vibe and suffocating service. I wonder if Europeans get off on this, theres something old world and master/servant about it all that I cant get comfortable with. Youd think after being annoyed by NYC attitude–pointless posturing, velvet rope culture–that I'd enjoy being treated well. But what I used to think of as noise, crowds and obnoxiousness actually feels more like energy in comparison. This passion and verve is what I found lacking at Frangipani, despite the creative cooking.

Frangipani * 25 Changkat Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kayu Nasi Kandar

Nasi kandar restaurants belong to a broad genre called economy rice, kandar is the Indian version while nasi campur is Malaysian. You point and pick items to be served over rice. But you kind of have to choose wisely or its not quite as economical–at least not by local standards.

We went hog wild, taking a little of this and that, everything looked so good. And besides, I wasn't super sure what everything was, so the more new stuff the better. I asked for the same crimson battered blobs that the person in front of me had ordered, figuring he must know what he's doing. I didn't expect them to be fish eggs, which is what the counter guy explained. I'm still not sure how they were eggs (bottom left corner of photo). In addition, I got shrimp, chicken, squid, black curry, at least five things. I'm certain the counter guy had us pegged as foreign moneybags because he defaulted to biryani when I noticed everyone else had white rice. I said yes to all the extras like meat floss and cucumber relish.

When all was said and done are two meals came to RM40, which is a freaking lot for Penang. But being a boatload of food and still only $5 apiece, we were in no position to complain. It's nice when the exchange rate and local cost of living actually works in your favor for a change. After sitting down, we observed that most diners had only plain rice and two sides, making us look like the American gluttons we truly are. That's ok, its not every day I get to indulge in a nasi kandar feast.

Kayu Nasi Kandar * Penang Rd., Penang, Malaysia



Penang was mildly trying at first. We didn't have our bearings or any sense of distance. Knowing the trouble with S.E. Asian taxi drivers and their awareness of street names (street names aren't even posted on street corners, which is incredibly frustrating and time wasting) and how buildings aren't always numbered at all or in any logical sequence, we took a cab from the hotel straight down Penang Rd. to KOMTAR, a landmark we figured couldn't be messed up. From a map we had it looked like Sisters was two blocks or so from KOMTAR on an off shooting street named Macalister.

Of course the roads weren't labeled so it was impossible to deduce which was Macalister without walking down one until you found out otherwise. We finally got on track and began a trek that was definitely more than two blocks. We wearily continued our journey for supposedly the best char kway teow in Penang (if not all of Malaysia, and hence the world) looking for Jalan Perak, the cross street. It took a good 25 minutes before we finally found our roadside stand. And then the ordering trauma began.

Do you order up front where the old lady is cooking like a hawker stall? Do you sit down at a table and hope that your order gets taken. It all makes sense after you've done it once and get accustomed to the drill but this was our first meal in Malaysia and we did it all out of order. We kept waiting to be acknowledged up front at the stove, but it was frenzied and didn't feel right. English didn't seem to help things along much either. We told a male staff member next to the cooking area that we wanted two large orders of noodles and then looked for a place to sit. The restaurant was packed, we squeezed into the last available mini table way in the back near the sink where old men kept coming and hacking loogies.


After a coma inducing wait (I began to recall reviews I'd read about slow service. Oh, and how expensive Sisters is. Maybe in comparison to the norm of Penang, but $1 a plate wont invoke any cries from New Yorkers) we figured out the routine and that we'd mangled it. It was very simple. You find a seat, sit down, and a waitress will come take your order and the food will arrive quite some time later. I actually think they forgot our order because we hadn't done it right in the first place. It took nearly an hour to get two plates of noodles

But the char kway teow was really freaking good and became our benchmark for the rest of the trip (none surpassed it). If ordering wasn't such an ordeal I swear we'd have had seconds. It was spicy and a little sweet, the ingredients were charred around the edges not soggy like many renditions. And yes, this is a greasy dish, the serving swatch of banana leaf was slicked with orange oil. But hot and oily is a good thing. Others we tried were more sweet and wet.

I didn't encounter any CKT in Singapore or Malaysia that contained Chinese sausage, which I always thought was typical. Apparently its not. Bean sprouts, shrimp, broad noodles, dark soy, egg are all basics. Lard is traditional, though I'm not sure what Sisters used because we were scared the cook was going to throw rotten cockles or something at us if we got too close and bugged her again.

Now were like old hands, total char kway teow experts (ok, not really—but these people are) We could find Sisters in a pinch. The problem is when will we ever get back to Penang? We really need Star Trek style holoports to make world dining more practical. Ok, I swear thats the last food geeky thing Ill write…but you have to admit it would be pretty cool to pop up in Penang for lunch, then get back to your midtown office unnoticed. 

Sister's * Jalan Macalister near Jalan Perak, Penang, Malaysia

Gurney Drive Hawkers

There are moments when I feel smart and smug, but mostly I feel dumb and confused. Figuring out where the well known Gurney Drive hawkers actually set up made me feel profoundly stupid. We had taken a taxi to Gurney Plaza, the big modern mall, and passed a bunch of roadside stalls along the way, but I didnt think any of those were this specific hawker center. After an afternoon of shopping we were stymied, for some reason we didnt think the esplanade went much further, but didnt think the hawkers were behind us either. Of course, there is a bit more esplanade beyond the mall and thats exactly where the hawkers were. Maybe it was the heat, or our ragged body clocks, but we were baffled enough to almost ask a taxi at the mall to drive us there, which wouldve been really ridiculous as it was mere blocks away.

 I'm still not clear how hawkers keep what you order and where youve sat straight. And why some approach/attack before youve had a chance to think and make it seem that you must order from them when I'm pretty sure you can sit wherever, at least at this particular center. After getting our bearings, we got two bowls of assam laksa. I still cant believe this was the only time we sampled this soup style (thick round rice noodles, sour tamarind broth, fish, mint, spice–its nothing like the coconutty lemak versions except in name), but with so many food choices you dont want to repeat yourself. I also got rojak, which was full of mystery items despite my watching the old and young male duo assemble my dish. I think theres jicama, cucumbers, pineapple, maybe squid, and something I later learned were water apples. I love the sweet, spicy inky shrimp sauce the crunchy wedges are tossed with. James got some little mystery fried things and a plate of char kway teow.

On a non-food related note: Penangites seem to have a penchant for loud inappropriate music, not wholly unlike how Mexican joints like blaring jukeboxes. Earlier, at the mall there had been some automobile promotion out front and really really loud hip hop was blasting. Way over the top. At Gurney, a table was set up where two guys were selling dvds and they were also letting the crowd involuntarily sample their wares. But one mans distracting is anothers enticing–they garnered a decent amount of customers. Me, Ill stick to the food.

Gurney Drive Hawkers * Gurney Dr., Penang, Malaysia


Yes, I ate at KFC in Penang. So sue me (jeez, the ‘80s bug just bit me). Everyone has conniptions when you tell them you ate at American fast food chains while on vacation. I understand, it weirded me out that my grandma ate at Planet Hollywood in Beijing (never mind the fact that the woman visited mainland China at all—she always struck me as more Branson).

KOMTAR was giving us the heebie jeebies. It was like an Eastern Bloc, cold war era shopping center, but Muslim, if you can imagine. James started getting sick, claiming the entire place smelled like hair spray (there were lots of little eerie beauty parlors inside). I think it was more like bug spray or disinfectant. No matter, he needed to sit (normally, I'd think he was exaggerating about not feeling well, but hed said the same thing on our flight from NYC and then proceeded to pass out) and well, KFC was recognizable and air conditioned. Plus, who can resist fried chicken, Malaysians love fried chicken, how bad could it be?

So, we ordered combos containing one regular and one spicy piece of chicken, soda and a little something called Cheezy Wedges, which were fried potato chunks drizzled with nacho cheese and mayonnaise. So wrong. (They also had a Cheezybon at their Cinnabon, which was also doused in a Cheez Whiz-like substance). The chicken itself was perfectly tasty, and I'm a total sucker for the “sos chili” a.k.a. sweet chile sauce that's served at most S.E. Asian fast food joints. The portions were notably smaller than not just American ones, but Singapores (the only country that seemed to have Big Gulps at their 7-Elevens) as well. The small amount of food we actually consumed made me feel slightly less guilty about frequenting KFC.

KFC * KOMTAR, Penang, Malaysia

Tai Hing Roast

Chinese fast food, sort of, and possibly better than Maxims or Café de Coral. Tai Hing serves roast meats on rice like NY Noodletown, which is a style I can identify with and certainly get into. We kept it simple and ordered individual servings of roast goose and roast pork that came with rice and a few greens. Simple and satisfying. Other people had dipping sauces that I guess you have to ask for. Being in HK 24 hours at the point, we had already caught on to a few local customs. The big one being how everyone washes their chopsticks and bowls in hot tea that comes when you are seated. It's for rinsing not for drinking, and I'm still not exactly sure why its done. Luckily, I never made any drinking the fingerbowl water faux pas. I'd seen this done a couple times in NYC Chinatown and thought the people were freaks. Now I know that its classy.

Tai Hing Roast Restaurant * 484 Jaffe Rd., Hong Kong

Maxim’s City Hall

We were unintentionally the first people in this not-so-hallowed, but popular dim sum hall. I'm never up, out and anywhere before noon, but our body clocks were out of whack since it was our first morning after twenty hours of traveling. I was thinking that dim sum was an earlier affair, more breakfast than lunch. I swear NYC dim summers are early birds. We got to the doors just as they were opening at 11am, but I didnt get this at first and tried to barge in, not realizing the red panels were shut for a reason and that the eight-to-ten other folks lingering in the foyer werent just loitering for fun.

It was a parade of treats, just the way I like it. Later dim sum at Xin was too austere and Victoria Seafood was pristine, but lacking the visual allure of picking and pointing. Ive heard that the cart style, which were accustomed to, is a dying breed, but its thriving at City Hall. I couldnt even tell you what we ate, as it was our first meal and faded from memory, and also because we tried so many tidbits that its a blur.

I know there were mini sesame topped pork buns, chee chong fun, taro dumplings a.k.a. woo gok, little stubby, yellow open-topped dumplings filled with pork and possibly orange roe (these were everywhere, but new to me). Also popular but new were super light and crispy shrimp-filled cylinders that werent quite egg rolls, yet were battered and fried and served with mayonnaise. Odd.

I know we had twice that amount of food, and werent ashamed of our gluttony until we noticed other tables were daintily picking at perhaps two to three dishes. Well, the tourists at least, who mightve been timid about ordering or possibly truly dainty eaters.

Despite being unfashionably early, it was a wise move since the vast room was almost to capacity by the time we left. The meal went smoothly (more smoothly than our finding the restaurant–its upstairs and in the middle of a municipal complex). NYC dim sum can be more frustrating, have longer waits, shared tables (I'm surprised we got one to ourselves here) and language barriers (we once waited an eternity in Brooklyn for our number to be called before realizing they were doing it in Chinese. Duh). Hong Kong is a breeze by comparison.

Maxim's City Hall * 7 Edinburgh Pl., Hong Kong

The Barn

I didnt intentionally want my first Hong Kong meal to be at a weirdo dive bar. I hadnt anticipated a woody structure at the end of an alley, festooned with Christmas lights, but after the twenty hours or so traveling and getting traumatized trying to hoof our luggage from the mere five blocks at Causeway Bay station to our hotel (all those staircases and flyovers, which are metric or Chinese or something crazy–the stairs arent spaced natural to American strides. I kept tripping, which probably had nothing to do with jetlag) we didnt have the energy to attempt a Chinese-only restaurant, which was all we were finding open after 11pm on a weeknight (the next night we discovered we were just going in a bad direction—plenty are open if you shoot off the other way).

So, we were the only Westerners in this low key pub filled with college aged (who knows they couldve been in their forties—yes, I'm stereotyping, but Asians age so damn well. Hmm, actually at the HK airport on the way back to NYC a tourism department girl caught and convinced me to answer a survey. When asking my age range she kept pointing at the two categories in the twenties. I was like “no, I'm in the 30-34 group,” which seemed to surprise her into responding “but you look so young of face,” which made me feel blissfully youthful for about thirty seconds) kids listening to Cantonese hip hop and pop, stuff that sounded just like Christina Aguilera but not in English.

We conservatively ordered Heineken rather than trying one of the many Red Bull concoctions being advertised. I noticed that at the few bars we visited they have drink prices displayed on menus and on the wall in at regular rate and happy hour rate. So spelled out and regulated, same with the sizes of the liquor shots. But we were starving, that was the main reason wed popped out of the comfy confines of our tiny hotel room.

The menu was full of bizarre bar food items like chicken wings with Switzerland sauce. I bravely tried salt and pepper squid, expecting little calamari styled crunchies like youd get here, but this was like a giant octopus cut up with lots of arms and tentacles. Luckily, seafood that looks like seafood doesnt scare me. The club sandwich we also ordered was probably more frightening. The layers consisted of ham, a white processed cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried egg and cucumbers, the latter two giving me the most pause. It wouldnt give Dennys Super Bird a run for its money, but at that moment it was the tastiest (and only) thing wed eaten in Hong Kong.

The Barn * 44-48 Leighton Rd., Hong Kong

Dude, Ranch

I was vaguely aware that Americans have a perverse fascination with ranch dressing. Over the years it has replaced regular condiments like mustard and mayonnaise on burgers, sandwiches, wraps, what have you. A recent Slate article only confirmed and clarified this dressing fixation.

Then I totally freaked when I started seeing those bizarre Wendy's commercials with the ranch tooth. You know, like a sweet tooth, but this larger than life incisor with a face and cowboy hat craves creamy buttermilk laced with powdered herbs and spices. Scary. And well, kind of amusing. The ad agency has clearly tapped into the ranchification of America.

I'm not there yet. If I'm going to inappropriately dip food into salad dressing, it's going to be blue cheese, not ranch. I'm only mildly ashamed to admit that a college friend of mine Kristin converted me to the charms of pepperoni pizza dipped in blue cheese dressing. And I wonder why I'm now having blood pressure and sugar problems.