Travel

You Can't Visit Malaysia Without Going to This Street

One local's guide to his favorite neighborhood in Kuala Lumpur.

June 26, 2019
Petaling Street has kept much of its old charm, despite the rapid growth of Kuala Lumpur. Photo by Jorge Láscar

Welcome to Your Friendly Neighborhood Guide, a series of travel itineraries from locals who love their hometown haunts, nooks, and crannies so much, they're inviting us over for the inside scoop.


Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, is celebrated for many things: the Petronas Twin Towers, better known as the setting of the 1999 Sean Connery film Entrapment; our expansive (and expensive) shopping streets and malls; and a mishmash of Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences—the three main cultures of the nation—that makes it difficult to encapsulate its spirit in a sentence, or in an article for that matter.

But having lived here for almost all my life, there are a few spots that I always bring friends to whenever they visit, places that reveal the culture and charm of my city’s underbelly. So to experience the real KL (yes, “Kuala Lumpur” is a mouthful even for us locals), forget the glitzy malls and shiny skyscrapers, because Petaling Street is where it’s at.

While most of KL has been rapidly developing and growing (upward, mostly), Petaling Street has kept much of its old charm. The rows of shophouses have withstood a world war, three different ruling regimes (British colonialism, Japanese occupation, and since 1957, an independent Malaysian nation), and a race riot in 1969. It’s also the locale of the city’s original Chinatown. But before you conjure up images of lanterned streets lined with dim sum parlors and kitschy rickshaws, know that the area is flanked by the city’s busiest mosque, Masjid Jamek, and KL’s oldest Hindu temple in Sri Mahamariamman, both less than 10 minutes away on foot. So really, Petaling Street was, and in many ways still is, the epicenter of history and culture in KL, a neighborhood-sized snapshot of Malaysia’s pluralistic society.

Sure, Petaling Street can be a little chaotic, a little unkempt, and if you don’t know your way around, there’s a high chance you’ll get lured into a tourist trap selling counterfeit miscellany. But the area is also home to an eclectic collection of kopitiams (Malaysian coffee shops) and decades-old hawker centers, creaky parasol pushcarts selling crullers and Malay kuihs at the ever-congested Tun H S Lee crossing, and an alleyway of bustling food carts in Madras Lane.

Photo by Goosmurft/Wikimedia Commons
Photo by John Ragai

Since 2007, when parts of the neighborhood were gentrified, Petaling Street has seen an influx of edgy restaurants and hidden-but-not-so-hidden-you-can't-find-your-way-in speakeasies, too. The illicit motels and pharmacies have long been replaced with cute vintage cafés and boutique hotels like Tian Jing and Mingles, and the dilapidated Rex Theatre is now a community event space. So while some KL-ites might lament the loss of their favorite cinemas and mini-malls, the rehaul has given the neighborhood a much-needed facelift, and the area fortunately still beats with its old-school charisma. (Plus, at least there’s now an actual sidewalk so you don’t have to rub shoulders with cars as they whizz by.)

So the next time you’re in KL, be sure to head to Petaling Street, where the old and new mingle with psychedelic charm—a neighborhood that is, as our tourism ads put it, "Truly Asia."

1. Madras Lane Yong Tau Foo

City Center, Jalan Sultan

What at first might look like a dingy, claustrophobic alleyway, Madras Lane gives way to a horde of hawker stalls and pushcarts selling classic Malaysian fare. While the curry laksa and chee cheong fun (rice noodle roll) might bring the crowd, the yong tau foo takes the cake here. The name literally means “stuffed tofu,” but really it’s a whole ritual where you get to pick out a bunch of raw ingredients—brinjals, okras, bitter gourds, chillis, wontons, and yes, tofu—that get stuffed with fish paste and are then simmered or deep-fried (depending on the item) right in front of you. Yong tau foo stalls are found at hawker centers all around the city, but unless you’re willing to travel an hour out, Madras Lane has one of the best.

2. Chocha Foodstore

156 Jalan Petaling

When Shin Chang set out to reinvent “modern Malaysian cuisine” with small plates (in a building that used to house a brothel), I had heavy doubts. But on my maiden visit two years back, they had me at CFC—Cincalok (fermented shrimp)-marinated Fried Chicken. If modern Malaysian food comes in fiery, sambal-topped grilled eggplants and umai laksa umami bombs, paired with natural wines and craft beers, sign me up. If you’re one for teas, Chocha has a whole section of the menu dedicated to thoughtfully sourced Chinese pu'ers and oolongs too.

3-4. Soong Kee Beef Ball Noodles + Lao Yau Kee Porridge

86 Jalan Tun H S Lee

Some Malaysians might have beef with this particular recommendation, because there’s a trio of beef noodle shops within a half-mile radius of Petaling Street: Soong Kee, Shin Kee, and Lai Foong. They’re often the subject of heated debate, but for me, Soong Kee has the beefiest, ballsiest dish. The beef is always tender, the balls ever juicy, and the broth utterly delicious.

As a two-for-one, Soong Kee also shares its premises with an old-school porridge (congee) cart, Lao Yau Kee. You’ll often see the uncle with his pushcart parked outside, stirring two massive pots of gruel, making sure the rice at the bottom doesn’t catch and burn. So if you’re not in the mood for a hefty bowl of beef noodles, get the porridge with a side of fried pork intestines. (Personally, I always get both.)

5. Kedai Kopi Lai Foong

138 Jalan Tun H S Lee

Kedai Kopi means "coffee shop," but unlike the Western idea of cafés, Malaysian coffee shops (sometimes known as kopitiams) are more like food courts, where a bunch of the best stalls—each serving two to three dishes they’ve perfected over years—come together under one roof. Lai Foong is no different. Brave the queues and long wait for the wonton noodles; the fiery, alcoholic lala clam noodles (that might just get you tipsy at lunch); or if you won’t make your way to Soong Kee (how dare you, but okay), the beef noodles here are pretty banging, too.

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6. Betel Leaf

77A Leboh Ampang

Technically more Masjid Jamek than Petaling Street, but a saunter through the area wouldn’t be complete without a hearty meal at the best Indian restaurant in the city. (Yes I’m calling it.) A regular haunt of mine during my internship at the nearby Teach for Malaysia office, I’ve spent a handful of Friday lunch breaks here, where I’ve stuffed myself silly with garlic cheese naans, palak paneers, chicken tandooris, and dal makhanis. And oh, their gobi manchurian (Indian-Chinese fried cauliflower) is hea-ven-ly—and to date, still the best I’ve ever had.

7. PS150

150 Jalan Petaling

With the 2007 rehaul, a slew of bars and speakeasies have moved into this stretch of the street. But from the reservations-only-or-you-sit-on-the-floor Shuang Xi bar-cum–art room to the red-lit, Bob-Marley-tribute Reggae Bar, PS150 stands heads and shoulders above the rest.

The décor and drinks take inspiration from the area’s Chinatown roots, and with drinks infused with Malaysian ingredients like pandan, osmanthus, and tuak (a local rice wine), and with cocktail names like Dragon Eye Fist, Lychee No. 3, and Kiong Si (the Cantonese term for "zombie"), there are few better places to spend the wee hours of the morning.

8. Santa Chapati House

11 Jalan Tun H S Lee

No, the guy behind the till doesn’t have a long white beard, and no, you don’t have to enter through the chimney. But Santa does serve up a mean "reindeer" mutton curry. It’s another old stomping ground of mine during my Teach for Malaysia days. Go in, ask for one or two of their flaky chapatis, pick out a few side dishes and curries from the trays laid out near the entrance, and dig in. Don't forget to wash it all down with a milky mango lassi.

9. Rex KL

80 Jalan Sultan

The Rex used to be a historic theater, one of the biggest and most iconic in the city, and the focal point of many Malaysian novels and retellings of the deadly 1969 race riot. Over years of disuse, it fell into dilapidation and housed seedy drug dens and motels. But recently, a group of architects and artists bought over the place and repurposed it into a buzzing community space. The overhaul is still underway, but in the parts of the building that have been revitalized, there are regular pop-up performances, flower markets, and the current owners even managed to MacGyver a movie screening or two in the old parking lot.

There’s also a newly minted beer bar residing in the historic space, most notably serving drinks from the local Modern Madness brand. Chrysanthemum ales and porters infused with the spices of bak kut teh (Malaysian pork bone soup) abound—beers as local as you can get them, a rare gem considering our nation’s strict brewing laws.


Vegan "Bone" Broth

10. Old China Café

11 Jalan Balai Polis

By its signage, Old China calls itself a "restaurant & antique gallery." It’s the only place I know of where you can eat your way through a belt-busting Nyonya meal—a category of Malaysian cuisine that’s heavily influenced by the Portuguese—surrounded by sepia portraitures and dusty calligraphy scrolls that transport you back to 1900s colonial Malaysia. There are classic rendangs and laksas done with Eurasian flair, tamarind-tinged pork masak asam, and sago gula melaka (palm pearls with Malaccan sugar) to end the meal.

11. Jao Tim

61 Jalan Sultan

In keeping with the theme of crumbling-business-turned-hip-food-place, Jao Tim (which means "hotel" in Cantonese) was, you guessed it, an old hotel! It’s now a café during the day, but it’s kept much of its former allure: brick walls, high ceilings, even an old concierge desk where you’re given a "key" to your table. On certain evenings and on Sunday afternoons, the Jay Gatsby–esque space houses jazz jams, art exhibitions, and painting workshops.

Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below!

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Engineer + cook + food blogger. All about chocolate chip cookies, funky fresh ferments, and abusing alliteration.

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