Category Archives: Travel

Eating in Kuala Lumpur: Murtabak & Teh Tarik

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I didn’t know what to expect from Kuala Lumpur. Multiple friends described the city as unwelcoming, difficult to navigate, and unremarkable. More than a few people looked perplexed when I told them I would be visiting KL.  Luckily for me, the skeptics were wrong.  While KL is not the most picturesque city, and does not have many conventional tourist destinations, it has a rich blend of cultures that is perhaps best experienced through its vibrant cuisine.

Malaysian food reflects its diverse cultural heritage: it has the sweet-sour flavors of the Malay, paired with the wok-frying techniques of the Chinese and intoxicating spices of India, all of which combine to create a truly distinct cuisine.  And despite mounting ethnic and religious tensions, there is one unifying characteristic that transcends these differences: Malaysians love to eat.  No matter what time of day, every restaurant, street stall, night market, and kopitiam is full of customers, happily devouring the house specialty.

One specialty that I still dream about is murtabak — a less well-known cousin of Malaysia’s more famous breakfast dish, roti canai.  Murtabak is a paper thin wisp of a pancake, fried until crispy and light.  But unlike roti canai, which is dipped in curry, murtabak envelops a spicy-cumin filling of ground mutton or chicken, eggs, and onions.  It’s served with a rich coconut gravy and red onions pickled in rosewater, which provide much-needed relief from the murtabak filling, whose heat grew more intense with each bite.  It was my first meal in KL, and perhaps one of my best meals there, perfectly encapsulating the many cultures and flavors that define Malaysia and its cuisine.

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Another ubiquitous Malaysian specialty is teh tarik, or pulled tea.  Sweet condensed milk and black tea are pulled back and forth between two glasses, creating a pleasantly frothy concoction reminiscent of chai, minus the spices.  It’s available hot or iced at pretty much any restaurant or street stall, and every version tastes different.  Though I did not witness the acrobatic display that is mamaks (a.k.a. tea masters!) pulling teh tarik, it is a hallmark of daily life in KL — so much so, that it inspired a hipster local clothing line.

Excellent murtabak and teh tarik can be found at Restoran Fathima (10, Jalan Bangsar Utama 1, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur 59200), located on a quiet corner in the expat friendly Bangsar neighborhood.  The restaurant is no-frills and unassuming, which in my experience, signals a good meal is in store.

KL is not for the faint of heart, or for travelers expecting guided tours.  But those who are willing to venture off the beaten path and explore Malaysia’s diverse culture and cuisine — preferably with an open mind and empty stomach — are in for many rewarding experiences and epic meals.

The Salt Lick: Hill Country’s Best BBQ

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With this being my last year as a student, and by extension my last spring break EVER, I decided to go big–Texas style.  I spent one glorious week in Austin, enjoying the warm weather and exploring the city’s incredible food scene.  Of course, no trip to Austin would be complete without sampling the Lone Star State’s most famous dish: BBQ.  I stopped at The Salt Lick and Franklin Barbecue, two of Austin’s most famous BBQ joints, and am happy to report that both lived up to, and went far beyond, my wildest BBQ dreams.

The Salt Lick, located about 45 minutes outside of Austin in Driftwood, TX, is a Hill Country institution.  For over 45 years, The Salt Lick has been serving its signature BBQ, cooked over a legendary open pit.  The meat smokes for hours atop a low fire of oak wood and pecan shells.  The mouthwatering aroma hits you about a mile away, as you drive up the highway and arrive at The Salt Lick’s idyllic grounds.

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My friends and I went to Salt Lick on a Saturday afternoon, and had to wait for an hour (which turned out to be nothing compared to Franklin–more on that below).  By the end of the hour though, we almost didn’t want the wait to end!  It was absolutely beautiful weather that day, perfect for walking around the expansive grounds or listening to the awesome live band playing outside.  The Salt Lick certainly knows how to keep guests entertained and play up its Texas charm.

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After the hour lapsed, we were promptly seated in one of the many dining rooms.  I appreciated that the hostess did not force us to share a communal table with strangers, instead giving our small group of 3 a huge table all to ourselves.  Our waiter, Matt, was also awesome, accommodating our many photo requests and menu questions.

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We ordered an all-you-can-eat family style meal ($19.95 per person) and a double beef ribs plate ($19.95).  The family style meal came with unlimited brisket, sausage, pork ribs, potato salad, coleslaw, beans, bread, and housemade pickles.  I can wholeheartedly say that I loved everything on my plate.  The brisket was fall-apart tender, with just the right amount of fat that instantly melted in my mouth.  While I am not a big sausage fan, I could not stop eating Salt Lick’s; it was spicy and smokey, with a nice bite to it.  And everything was doused in Salt Lick’s famous BBQ sauce, made with a secret recipe rumored to have 32 ingredients.  I literally could drink the sauce–it was sweet and mustardy, without being pungent or sour.

Surprisingly, another favorite was the sides. The coleslaw had a clear Japanese influence, perhaps from the owners’ mother, who was Japanese-American from Hawaii.  Flecked with sesame seeds, the coleslaw had a mild rice vinegar flavor and had just the right acidity to counterbalance the meat.  I also could not stop eating the bread, which was not your traditional white sandwich bread.  This bread was fluffy, light, and slightly sweet, almost like Hawaiian bread.

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The beef ribs were almost comical in how large they were!  The meat was very rich, and intensely beefy.  I could only eat one bite, but that bite was magical.

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For good measure, we decided to order the BBQ chicken ($10.95), which is only available “when in season.”  It turned out to be a good decision, because that was possibly the best BBQ chicken I’ve ever had.  The smoke completely penetrated the chicken, leaving the meat moist and flavorful.  The skin was completely coated in that luscious sauce, some of which caramelized over the grill.

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As if we weren’t full enough after our BBQ feast, our awesome waiter Matt brought over a complementary peach and blackberry cobbler for us to try.  Topped with vanilla ice cream, the cobbler was comforting and tasted like it had been made with love.  I especially loved the topping, which was more cake-like and not the more traditional biscuit or crumble topping.

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And obviously, I couldn’t leave Salt Lick without trying a slice (read: a SLICE, not a whole pie) of pecan pie ($4.95).  In contrast to other pecan pies I’ve had, Salt Lick (or maybe Texas in general?) tops their pecan pies with a layer of whole pecans, rather than mixing pieces of pecans with the filling.  The pie was delicious, with the thick crust offsetting the sweetness of the filling perfectly.

The Salt Lick was overall, the best BBQ experience I’ve ever had.  Every detail, from the rustic setting to the gracious service to the stick-to-your-ribs BBQ, added to our memorable experience.  The Salt Lick is certainly a tourist trap in every sense of the word, but it is a tourist trap well worth going to, and can’t be missed on any trip to Austin.  I would go back in a heartbeat.

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The Salt Lick
18300 FM 1826
Driftwood, TX 78619
(512) 858-4959
Open everyday 11am-10pm
Cash only and BYOB

Serious Coffee at Shanghai’s Sumerian

Though replete with cafes, Shanghai is still lacking in serious, high quality coffee. Sumerian, which opened this past summer in Jing’An District, successfully fills that void with its emphasis on Fair Trade beans and sophisticated brewing techniques.  All of the beans are roasted in-house by owner David Seminsky, ensuring a fresh, high quality cup of coffee.

Upon walking into Sumerian, patrons are greeted with a sunny, clean, modern interior.  The main counter is lined with Japanese siphons, which slowly drip intense cold brews, perfect for iced coffee.  There is also a small pastry case filled with delectable looking baked goods, some of which are imported from the U.S.

On all of my visits to Sumerian, I ordered the Kyoto ice drip coffee (RMB 32).  Smooth and light, with pronounced chocolate flavors and subtle sweetness, it was the perfect iced coffee.  Even now that I am back in Philly, the land of La Colombe, I still dream about the Kyoto iced coffee from Sumerian.

Though coffee junkies like me are certainly willing to pay a premium for great coffee, many customers in Shanghai are more reluctant.  In an effort to educate their customer base on the virtues of third wave coffee, Sumerian offers weekly cupping classes on Saturday afternoons, from 12-2pm.  Cupping, which is very popular here in the States, is quite rare in Shanghai, and I’m really glad that Sumerian provides this service.  For coffee geeks seeking serious coffee in Shanghai, look no further than Sumerian.

Sumerian
415 Shanxi Bei Lu, near Beijing Xi Lu
陕西北路415号,近北京西路
136-2174-0969

Ci Fan Tuan: Shanghai’s Breakfast of Champions

You may be thinking to yourself, “What on earth is that ungodly glob in the photo?!”  Well, my friends, that ungodly glob is called ci fan tuan, or rice roll, and is one of the tastiest breakfast foods that I encountered in Shanghai.

Chinese breakfasts tend to be savory rather than sweet, with the most ubiquitous dishes including rice porridge, or zhou, topped with thousand year old egg and scallions; long fried crullers called you tiao dipped in warm soy milk; and baozi, steamed buns filled with pork or fresh veggies.  For the longest time, my favorite Chinese breakfast dish was jian bing, Beijing’s version of a crepe, which typically comes with a fried egg, scallions, garlic, a crispy tofu sheet, hoisin sauce,and lots of chile sauce inside.  However, upon discovering ci fan tuan in Shanghai, I might venture to say that jian bing has been dethrowned of its top spot in my Chinese breakfast food hierarchy.      

When sampling ci fan tuan, it’s important to note that not all of them are created equal.  The best one that I ate in Shanghai was at a stand located behind Plaza 66, on Fengyang Lu and Xikang Lu.  You’ll recognize the stand by the long line of customers every morning, awaiting their beloved ci fan tuan.  

Ci fan tuan is definitely an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of a dish.  Warm glutinous rice engulfs a whole soy braised egg, pork floss, ground pork,  black bean sauce, and a fried cruller.  It’s a symphony of flavors and textures in every bite: saltiness from the black bean sauce, sweetness from the pork floss, crunch from the cruller, and chewiness from the rice.  With so many ingredients and flavors, ci fan tuan is certainly filling and delicious, which makes it Shanghai’s reigning breakfast of champions in my mind.

To find ci fan tuan in Shanghai, go early in the morning and look for the roadside stands and small family-owned shops serving breakfast foods.  My favorite stand is behind Plaza 66 on Fengyang Lu and Xikang Lu, and there is another one on Xiangyang Bei Lu and Fuxin Lu.

Saved by the Sandwich at Sunflour

After a month of eating nothing but Chinese food, I hit a wall that every laowai (or expat) living in China must hit–I simply could not stomach anymore Chinese food.  The thought of another bowl of niu rou mian (beef noodle soup), or  another plate of sheng jian bao (pan fried dumplings), or even my favorite Shanghainese dish hong shao rou (soy sauce braised pork), made me grimace.

But thankfully for me, there is an abundance of delicious and affordable Western restaurants and cafes in Shanghai, catering to the thousands of hungry and homesick expats living in the city.  My favorite among them was Sunflour, located a few short clocks from my apartment on tree-lined Anfu Road.

Sunflour Cafe quite literally saved me from starvation, on that fateful day in Shanghai when I was lost amidst a sea of Chinese restaurants.  After a few hours of wandering around the French Concession in search of an affordable, non-Chinese lunch option, I was about to give up and go home, when I turned the corner onto Anfu Road and discovered Sunflour.  Immediately lured in by the smell of fresh baked bread and pastries, I decided to give their lunch menu a try and ordered the grilled chicken sandwich with tomato, rocket, avocado, and mayo on a baguette (50 RMB).

The sandwich was phenomenal.  The baguette, baked in-house, had a crisp exterior and soft, airy interior that held up well under the moist grilled chicken.  I loved the addition of tomatoes, avocado, and rocket arugula–a combination of fresh ingredients that one would certainly find in my home state of California.  Accompanied by a lovely bean salad, Sunflour’s grilled chicken sandwich was a steal at 50 RMB (just under $8 USD), and was just what I needed to refuel after a long and hot summer day in Shanghai.

I couldn’t leave Sunflour without sampling one (or rather, all) of their delectable macarons.  I split a gift box of macarons (50 RMB) with a friend, which included a lovely assortment of six macarons.  My favorite flavor was the lemon, a refreshing end to a refreshing meal.

Sunflour
Room 104, No. 322, An Fu Road, Xuhui District, Shanghai
上海徐汇区安福路322号104室
6473 7757

Noodle Bull’s Aromatic Beef Noodle Soup

One of my first meals since arriving in Shanghai was one of the best: braised beef noodle soup at Noodle Bull.  A sleek, minimalist interior gives the impression that Noodle Bull may not be authentic, but this is clearly a misimpression. 

I ordered their infamous, traditional beef noodle soup (30-35 RMB), and a glass of their housemade suan mei tang (sour plum juice).  The beef broth in the noodle soup was incredibly aromatic (possibly from the addition of star anise), with a soothing and savory flavor.  It was rich without being overly greasy or full of MSG.  The beef was tender, with just the right amount of fat melting in your mouth.  I also enjoyed the vegetables, which added some freshness to the dish. 

Surprisingly, the suan mei tang quite enjoyable.  I am generally not a fan of the drink because it is usually too tart for my taste, but Noodle Bull’s version had a nice balance of sweet and sour, with a deep plum flavor.

With good food, cheap prices, and a refined atmosphere, it’s no wonder why foreigners and locals alike flock to Noodle Bull.

Noodle Bull
A Mansion, 1/F, 291 Fumin Lu, near Changle Lu
富民路291号1楼, 近长乐路
(86 21) 6170 1299

Eating on the Eastside: Not Just for Hipsters

The Unpaid Gourmet is (finally) back after a long hiatus, which involved studying for (dreaded) law school exams, moving out of a (grungy) Philadelphia apartment, spending two (glorious) weeks at home in Los Angeles, and settling down for the next month in Washington, DC.  In between all the chaos, I managed to enjoy more than a few noteworthy meals, which I’ll be recounting right here on this blog.

I’ll start with some memorable meals from my trip to Los Angeles.  Growing up in Silver Lake, I’ve seen the neighborhood transform from dull and quiet to happening and hipster.  Before, I couldn’t convince my friends to go east of Larchmont.  Now, my former Westside-centric friends flock not only to Silver Lake, but also as far east as (gasp) Pasadena to visit the latest restaurants and bars.  The Eastside has definitely become a dining destination, for hipsters and old-timers (like me!) alike.  I’ll share some of the new places that I enjoyed most on this trip, along with some oldies that remain just as fantastic as before.

Golden Road Brewery (Glendale)

It’s pretty difficult to find Golden Road Brewery, hidden behind the railroad tracks and industrial warehouses, but well worth the trek.  Locals flock to Golden Road not only for its awesome craft brews, but also for the fresh, local fare served at its gastropub.  The pub is surprisingly big, with a huge patio out front and warehouse-sized dining room inside.  But even more surprisingly, on a Wednesday night when I attended, the entire pub was filled.

I ordered the famous Point the Way IPA ($5), ground pork & bacon meatballs ($7), and coconut “noodle” salad ($9).   The Point the Way IPA was mildly hoppy, and went down smoothly on a warm summer night.  The meatballs, served in a warm tomato-bacon sauce over chili corn bread, were underwhelming.  Though moist and tender, I thought the meatballs lacked in flavor, and the chili corn bread lacked any remnant of chili flavor.

The coconut “noodle” salad, however, more than made up for the underwhelming meatballs.  Thai coconut, julienned vegetables, napa cabbage, and fresh herbs were dressed in an almond chili sauce, and topped with spicy cashews.  The sweetness of the coconut “noodles” balanced the heat of the almond chili sauce beautifully, while the cabbage, julienned carrots and bell peppers added a lovely crunch.  I devoured the entire plate, and believe me, that almost never happens when I order a salad.

Golden Road’s convivial atmosphere, respectable beers, and sophisticated pub fare seems to be a hit with the crowds, as evidenced by the full dining room on Wednesday night.  I’ll definitely be back for happy hour with my friends.

5410 West San Fernando Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA
(213) 373-HOPS (4677)
The Pub at Golden Road Brewing on Urbanspoon

 Fiore Market Cafe (South Pasadena)

Fiore Market Cafe is the perfect spot for ladies-who-lunch, with its charming garden and rustic menu.  The cafe itself is tiny, occupying one small room in the back of a community theater.  But what Fiore lacks in indoor space, it more than makes up for with its outdoor seating.  Grab a seat at one of the umbrella-covered picnic tables, amidst the manicured hedges and idyllic vegetable garden, and you’ll forget all about the city traffic outside.

The food mirrors the setting at Fiore: lovely and ladylike.  I ordered the short rib sandwich ($9.25), served on Fiore’s homemade bread.  The bread was light and airy, but substantial enough to soak up the juices from the short ribs.  Pickles and red cabbage slaw gave the sandwich an Asian accent, but the addition of chipotle mayo seemed at odds with the other flavors.

I also ordered a side of the spicy udon salad ($4.25), with pleasantly chewy udon noodles, crisp napa and red cabbage, carrots and scallions in a spicy soy dressing. I would have liked more heat since the salad was billed as spicy, but overall, I enjoyed the dish.  For a lovely and leisurely afternoon lunch, Fiore Market Cafe and its adorable garden can’t be beat.

1000 Fremont Ave.
South Pasadena, CA 91030
(626) 441-2280
Fiore Market Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tomato Pie & Intelligentsia Coffee (Silver Lake)

I, along with GQ food critic Alan Richman and legions of other fans, am absolutely hooked on Tomato Pie, a retro neon-orange jukebox of a pizza joint, located on Hyperion Blvd.  Since it opened a few years back, Tomato Pie has become a neighborhood staple and one of my must-go-to spots whenever I am back home in LA.  Their pizza simply can’t be beat; not only because it’s one of the few authentic NY-style pizzas on the West Coast, but also because of its commitment to fresh ingredients and dedication to the sheer craft of pizza making.

I can’t go to Tomato Pie without devouring ordering a slice of its infamous Grandma Pie.  To the uninitiated, the Grandma seems, well, old and boring; it’s just another Margherita pizza.  But devotees know the Grandma is so much more, and it’s all in the sauce.  Soulful, intense, just-garlicky-enough tomato sauce is topped with a handful of fresh basil and interspersed with mounds of melted mozzarella.

Another favorite of mine is the eggplant parmigiana pie, and it couldn’t be more different than the Grandma.  While the Grandma is an exercise in restraint, the eggplant parmigiana just piles it on, with crispy breaded eggplant, spinach, ricotta, and mushrooms.  It’s rich and satisfying, especially for eggplant lovers.

And if the top-notch toppings aren’t enough to win you over, Tomato Pie’s crust will definitely convert even the staunchest of haters.  Crisp and brown on the outside, chewy with a hint of salt on the inside, it truly is the best crust ever.

If you still have some room left after visiting Tomato Pie, walk a few blocks down to Sunset Junction, the heart of Silver Lake’s hipster revolution.  Now, I’m normally averse to hipster spots, but this one is honestly worth the aversion.  Intelligentsia Coffee (pictured above) is definitely a scene, with its perpetually filled tables (even in the middle of a weekday), minimalist interior, and strict ban on skim milk.  But its stellar single-origin coffees, expertly made espresso, and funky pastries (baked by Cake Monkey) make it easy to get past, and maybe even embrace, the hilarity of it all.

2457 Hyperion Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 661-6474
Tomato Pie Pizza Joint on Urbanspoon

3922 W. Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90029
(323) 663-6173
Intelligentsia Coffee on Urbanspoon