There are two Malaysian restaurants on M Street NW—in fact, they’re on the same block. The former could never be mistaken for the latter. Penang’s food is a toned-down version of the original--overpriced, overprocessed, and lacking any heat; the wait staff looks like a band of international models; and the dimly lit dining room overlooks the busy city. It’s a sexy place to go, if you’re the kind of person who “loves Malaysian” because you think you sound really cultured when you say that.
Having visited Malaysia Kopitiam countless times, it boggles the mind that here, and not Penang, no one waits for a table. It’s not as if the restaurant is hiding its talents—large posters outside proclaim its countless awards, such as inclusion on Best Bargain, Very Best, and Restaurateur of the Year lists. Still, certain folks make the mistake of confusing its simplicity with amateurism. “No way are we going there,” a coworker told me, before hosting a lunchtime birthday at That Other Restaurant. “It looks like the neighborhood takeout place.” And it does. Each dining room has just one window, and the restaurant is harshly lit, loud, and crowded. Menus arrive with large picture books listing each dish and detailed explanations of ingredients; those seeking an “exotic” experience will be sorely disappointed. The often jeans-clad servers answer questions and make suggestions only when asked, and refrain from upselling or banter. In a town overrun with new foodies clamoring for a “dining experience”, Malaysia Kopitiam is all about the food.
As such, there are few places where I would rather eat. The food is straightforward and simple: most dishes are served with fresh cucumber or onion slices, a piece of an egg, or some tomato. Roti Canai comes in a large, steaming bowl with a generous slab of the fluffy fried bread for dunking into the spicy red broth, and scooping up the juicy chicken pieces at the bottom. Ordered with a side of stir-fried spinach or broccoli, or the divine Satay Tofu, it’s the perfect lunch for one. Beef Rendang is another highlight, simmered in coconut milk and curry and served beside raw jicama and carrots. The meat is tender and spicy beside the cool, crunchy vegetables. This is basic, unpretentious food. The dish that keeps me coming back, though, is Mamak Mee Goreng, egg noodles stir-fried in a rich, nutty sauce with shrimp, tofu, soft potatoes, and tomato wedges, and topped with crunchy fried shallots and fresh sprouts. It’s faintly hot, and tastes just as good cold out of the refrigerator the next day—hearty comfort food for all seasons. Likewise for the Kuis Talam, a sweet, steamed dessert made of pandan juice, coconut milk, and flour.
Unfortunately for those who prefer their food less piquant, Malaysia Kopitiam’s “less spicy entree” menu can be misleading. Though excellent, the menu offerings are mostly seafood, and fail to reflect the true wealth of options available, including most of the noodle and specialty rice dishes. Additionally, nearly every dish can be adjusted to taste. On a recent visit, the kitchen barely blinked when a friend requested a “vegetarian, not-hot” chicken laksa.
Owners/chefs Leslie and Penny Phoon declare Malaysia Kopitiam “perfection in food.” It’s a claim that I won’t dispute. Just don’t tell the kids next door.
1827 M Street NW, Washington DC
Hours: Mon-Thurs 11:30am-10pm; Fri-Sat: 11:30am-11pm; Sun: 12pm-10pm
Prices: Appetizers $2.50-$11.95; entrees $8.50-$22.95.
Best for: Going-away parties, quick lunches, comfort food.
Skip it if: You’re a snob.