This is where you go to fall in love with Manhattan again.
That is what Ryan Sutton, Eater’s chief critic, declared in his review of Kopitiam, a casual Malaysian restaurant that has taken the New York dining scene by storm since expanding its beloved Canal Street counter space into a bright and sunny Lower East Side café.
With one of the most diverse food scenes in the world, it would be impossible to try and define Manhattan with a single cuisine. It’s a city just as renowned for its dollar slice shops as its $250 degustation menus, just as beloved for its bodega burritos as its multiplying Momofuku restaurants.
So what does it take to be the place that makes a New Yorker fall in love with Manhattan again? I decided to try and find out.
Kopitiam literally translates into “coffee shop”, combining the Malay word kopi for coffee and the Hakka word tiamis for shop. The English phrase has, for me at least, always brought to mind the sterile and dark décor of a Starbucks or the sad, cold wraps sitting around all day at The Bean. But as I stepped through Kopitiam’s yellow door, I immediately knew this was going to be a café experience unlike any I’d had before in America.
The space on 151 East Broadway feels more like your well-traveled friend’s studio (you know the one) than a coffee shop. The brick walls reminded me of my string of East Village apartments, but they were brightened with surprising pops of color dispersed throughout the large and airy café. There is a baby pink phone by the door that perfectly matches Kopitiam’s teh tarik tea – served in a plastic baggie and stored in a fridge by the cash register. Turquoise teapots line the shelves, porcelain cats smile from between the salt and pepper shakers, and lush green leafy plants hang from the ceiling. As New Yorkers happily clacked away on their laptops, I realized there wasn’t an uncomfortable ottoman or cheesy bean bag chair in sight.
It’s a space that felt both familiar and new, a sensation I soon learned would trickle right down into the food.
Kopitiam’s menu has something for everyone. The breakfasts range from thick slices of sweet French toast topped with chocolate Milo powder to the savory Nasi Lemak, the national dish of Malaysia (more on that later). There are noodles and oysters and stingray to be found in the main dishes. Chicken wings and curry puffs and duck tongue among the snacks. You can get black coffee made four different types of ways along with kuih, bite-sized desserts that chef Kyo Pang’s family has been selling for decades in her hometown of Penang.
Nothing is the same, and nothing is (amazingly) over $14. Pang wasn’t lying when she told Eater that a lot of things on her menu can’t be found in any other restaurant.
A friend and I decided to begin our meal with the aforementioned $9 Nasi Lemak, a rice dish that is commonly eaten for breakfast in Malaysia. The rice is cooked in coconut milk, circled with a row of gleaming cucumbers, and topped with anchovies that have been fried to a stunning burnt orange color that reminded me of chile peanuts. Nudged to one side is a hard-boiled egg that has been sliced down the middle. The dish is not made for those who prefer to start their day off with parfaits or pancakes. It is savory with a capital S, packing a smoky flavor and strong fish taste. Both my dining companion and I struggled to taste the coconut in the rice, and the anchovies were a little too chewy for my preference, but together the simple ingredients brought a surprisingly complex flavor that was aided in part by the delicious homemade chili paste known as sambal belacan (which I was excited to see pop up in more of our dishes).
Next up was the Pulut panggang, a $7 dish described as “grilled glutinous rice” that has been stuffed with dried shrimp and wrapped in a banana leaf. On the side, ready for dipping duties, was more of that sambal belacan that I already loved so much.
After unwrapping the banana leaf from the rice, I took my first bite. It was an explosion of flavor in my mouth, one that earned every bit of the overused cliché. The subtle sweetness of the sticky rice mixed perfectly with the smoky dried shrimp, as the spicy sambal belacan tied everything together like a perfect gift – one wrapped in banana leaves instead of shiny paper.
Then my friend and I dipped into the beef rendang, a special on the menu that was both surprisingly different and comfortably familiar. We both declared that the actual curry was perfect, with a consistency that was more saucy than oily and an even spiciness effortlessly managed by the lemongrass flavor and fresh bite of accompanying cucumber.
It was the beef, though, that surprised me the most. It was chewy, yes, but the texture immediately reminded me of my parents’ uvetsi, a baked Greek dish of beef, orzo, and tomatoes. The curry had tasted like a passport stamp to somewhere brand new, but the beef had brought me right back down to my childhood living room.
That sensation only continued when I had my first slurp of the Pan Mee, a $12 noodle soup – also on the all-day breakfast menu – that brings together flat hand-pulled noodles, minced pork, and an anchovy broth, topped with a flash of color from some spinach, perfectly cooked mushrooms, and more fried anchovies.
I adore noodles in every way, shape, and form, but these were unlike any I had ever tasted before. They were thick and chewy, with an almost bouncy but smooth consistency that reminded me of chicken in a laska or khao soi.
They were a perfect co-star for the broth, a mellow base that allowed the other ingredients to shine without being devoid of its own depth – one that immediately reminded me of the won ton soup at my favorite Chinese restaurant back home in Silicon Valley.
Once again, just one bite had transported me to a world that felt both brand new and completely familiar.
As we finished off our meal with the delightfully light Milky Rose Lychee Mochi – a perfectly chilled bite of super-soft coconut flakes topped with bright pink rose petals – I started to realize what Sutton had meant.
No matter how many years you end up notching on your New Yorker card, Manhattan will never stop surprising you - as long as you let it. There is always a secret bodega burrito to uncover, a Momofuku restaurant to save up for. But there is also the brick walls of your first starter place, the slice shops of your first broke dates.
Pang said that, in Malyasia, kopitiams are meant to feel like second homes. Kopitiam sure does, three thousand miles away from my own.