Above: EAT Food Village at Publika.
By Dustin Roasa
Kuala Lumpur is a street food paradise, but enjoying the best dishes can be challenging. Drenched in sweat and teetering on a tiny plastic chair, you might wonder if there’s another way. Turns out there is.
In the last decade or so, Malaysians have embraced the concept of high-end street food, which has seen traditional fare such as laksa and nasi lamak migrate from outdoor hawker centers to mall food courts and swanky bistros. The recipes and ingredients are authentic, but the setting is air-conditioned comfort.
Madam Kwan’s Founded by 77-year-old Kwan Swee Lian in 1999, this sit-down chain kicked off the high-end street food movement at a time when malls were becoming a way of life here. After a long day of hoofing it through one of the capital’s sprawling retail palaces, nothing beats the homey comfort of the Madam’s version of nasi lamak, Malaysia’s national dish. Served with fragrant coconut rice, creamy chicken curry, fiery sambal paste and other accompaniments, it’s a tasty amalgam of the country’s three distinct ethnic cuisines. But while the menu evokes tradition, the minimalist décor—blond wood furniture and sculptural chandeliers—nods toward the future.
Lot 10 Hutong For such a simple premise, it’s surprising that it took until 2009 for someone to think of it: select over two dozen of the best hawkers from around the country and gather them under one roof. Purists might disagree, but it’s possible to sample very good versions of Malaysian street food’s greatest hits without leaving the confines of this basement food court. Vendor Soong Kee’s beef noodle combo set—Hakka noodles topped with a rich minced-meat sauce, accompanied by greens and a bowl of clear broth with springy beef balls—is worth the trip alone. The rambling, mismatched dining hall and the old lady wheeling around the dim sum cart give this place an old-world feel, despite Lot 10’s new-mall sheen.
Food Republic at Pavilion It would take weeks of gorging to try all of the options on offer at this international-themed food court, but the best bet is to go local and head toward the yong tau fu stall. To the uninitiated, the ordering process can be overwhelming. Dozens of ingredients—deep-fried meat and tofu balls, vegetables and mushrooms—are on display with little in the way of explanation. Don’t be shy: just start pointing, and it all ends up in a bowl with noodles and a bewitching, aromatic broth. Afterward, head to Toast Box for one of Kuala Lumpur’s simplest, most underrated pleasures: white-bread toast smothered in kaya, the local coconut jam.
EAT Food Village at Publika
Opened in 2011, this food court is in a suburban shopping plaza 20 minutes from the city center. With long, communal tables, vintage ads, and old Chinese pop music crackling in the background, it’s meant to evoke nostalgia for a time when the entire city ate in scruffy kopi-tiams. The real attraction, though, is the food on offer from over a dozen vendors. The pan mee dished out by Kin Kin, a stall that brought a dedicated 30-year following to Publika, is particularly good. Served with crispy fried anchovies, a poached egg, dried chilies and noodles, the flavor is scorching, piquant, and authentic.