Last year, I wrote an article on Penang, a Malaysian restaurant chain—I’m using the word “chain” liberally—that has a few restaurants on the East Coast and one 10 minutes from campus. In retrospect, the article didn’t really need to be written. The first thing that people say when Malaysian food is mentioned is, “What’s Malaysian food?
Initially, Malaysian food just seems like an odd smorgasbord of Thai, Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese. It felt like Malaysia was trying too hard to copy something that it has no hope of surpassing—like The Avett Brothers trying to be Bob Dylan. But I spent part of my summer in Borneo, and I’ve grown up (a little bit). Eating fried rice for breakfast every day for five weeks slowly made me realize how great this food is. It grew on me in the same way Mitt Romney does after watching The Colbert Report.
Malaysian food actually combines some of the best elements of Southeast Asian flavors and throws out an interesting product, like a spicy and sour Tom Yum soup that is arguably better than the Thai version, some curries and sambals that go beyond Indian chutneys and smooth roti that’s as good as anything you can find on the Indian subcontinent. And once I realized how good it was, I also decided advertising Penang as the L.A. standard bearer for Malaysian is really selling that entire cuisine short. I needed to find the real deal.
So where’s the authentic Indo-Malay food in L.A.? I didn’t have to look far. It’s in the same West Covina strip mall as Penang, hidden behind a Chinese grocery store and a (mediocre) dim sum stall. Navigating the food court—which, by the way, is cheap—took me a few visits, but this is my rundown of each stall:
Kedai Nimkat: This place supposedly has the best Malaysian satay in the area, but its real draw is its coconut milk soup (soto betawi), which has a sour, heavily spiced broth that gives you a warm feeling in the depths of your heart. This is world-class stuff. If you’re hesitating about making this trip, this soup should give you the push you need. It’s also worth trying thegado gado, a combination of pounded rice cakes and noodles topped with a simple peanut sauce.
Bethania Depot: Bethania has the common menu that you actually see in Malaysia. It includes fried rice and noodles (nasi goreng and mie goreng, respectively), spicy fried or grilled chicken (ayam goreng or ayam penyet) and an excellent roti canai served with a chicken curry. They also serve a perfectly good laksa, a curry noodle soup that is easily one of my top five favorite dishes to eat at any given moment.
Janty Noodle: This place is, as you would expect, all about noodles. I really had no idea how to approach the menu, which has about 30 noodle options, so I went over and asked them to cook me whatever they wanted. The woman running the stall told me (with a straight face) that their “famous” noodle dish is mie ayam jampur (literally “noodle chicken mushroom”). All their noodles clearly have Chinese roots, and they’re all pretty good. On certain days, this place will sell you a $5 container of homemade sambal sauce that is so spicy it should have a warning label. I unsuspectingly spooned a chunk of it in my mouth, and it ruined my day.
Bakmi Parahyangan: I didn’t explore this particular stall as much as I should have, but it has a good chocolate martabak, which is the Indonesian version of a nutella crepe. Yes, there is an Indonesian version of a nutella crepe.
If, somehow, you are not satisfied with this tiny food court, you have some options without having to leave the strip mall. Penang is an entirely satisfying restaurant. The dim sum stall to the right of the food court also offers a variety of Chinese noodle soups and dumplings. Krua Thai could be the best Thai spot within 15 minutes of campus. There’s a good boba spot to the left of the Chinese grocery store. And, best of all, there are $15, hour-long foot massages to the right.
Malaysian/Indonesian Food Court. Hong Kong Plaza, 987 S. Glendora Ave., West Covina, CA. (Enter the left side of the HK Grocery Store.)