Want to stir up a quick debate in Kuching? Ask two locals where is the best Sarawak Laksa or Kolo Mee stall. Be ready for a heated discussion and be prepared to defend your choice.
Food is such a large part of Kuching life, that it is not just a regular conversation topic, it might be considered THE conversation. Not uncommon while eating the present meal is to be discussing the merits of the last meal and the location of the potential next meal.
This is not to say that Kuching people obsess over food, but rather that everyone does enjoy eating. And indeed, why not? With such a wonderful variety of excellent local dishes there is little incentive not to be eating out. The fact that the food is delicious and reasonably priced is further reward.
Should you find yourself hungry in an unfamiliar place, the general ‘rule of thumb’ when looking for a place to eat is to go where lots of people are eating. Nowadays people look at reviews on social media and Trip Advisor. But often the best local places are ‘off the grid’ – where the crowd is – and not ranked on Trip Advisor. This is the case in small cities like Kuching.
There are some idiosyncrasies regarding Kuching food vendors that outsiders often find difficult to understand. For example, that favorite laksa dish that everyone raves about is only sold until stocks run out and that might be as early as 10:30 am. Likewise, those Hakka chicken noodles that taste so good are also a morning only dish with sales finishing around 10:00 am.
So, at the risk of inviting criticism and controversy, what follows is a selection of some of the best cheap places to eat in central Kuching. The following food stalls and coffee shops (in no particular order of merit) are all within walking distance of downtown hotels. You can get a meal for under RM 10 at all of these places.
1. Kolo Mee, Kim Joo Café, 73 Ewe Hai Street
Kolo Mee is truly a local specialty and every ‘Kuchingite’ will have their particular stall or shop that serves their preferred bowl of mee.
What makes it unique or different? It could be something to do with the way the onions and garlic are fried and then how they are dried. It might be the type of noodles the stall uses. How long the noodles are blanched and then how they are rinsed before serving.
Sometimes it is the amount and combination of condiments added to the bowl. Was it that dash of vinegar; the type of sliced meat used; the degree of dryness or wetness of the noodles. It may well be all of the above.
Now, where to find that bowl of noodles.
In the historic heart of Kuching on Ewe Hai Street there is a popular coffee shop called Kim Joo Café. The proprietor is a local character and his signature Kolo Mee with a side of bean sprout soup is well liked. This is also a good place to get a great Fried Kueh Tiaw (flat rice noodles) or sample one of their combination regular and fried rice dishes. Kim Joo is open from morning until late afternoon.
Another well known Kolo Mee place in the centre of Kuching is in the Padungan Road area at 285 Jalan Datuk Wee Kheng Chiang. Locally famous Ta Wan Kung Café serves only Kolo Mee and yes it is different. The differences are subtle, but the aficionado will tell you it has something to do with how they fry the onions and garlic. You may have time to contemplate this as the place is often very busy and you may have to queue for a table.
Most Kolo Mee in Kuching is non-halal and served with minced or sliced pork. For Halal Kolo Mee try Sepinang Sari Café & Restaurant (also known as Haji Salleh) at Jalan Satok. The noodles here are served with beef.
2. Sarawak Laksa, Choon Hui Café, 34 Ban Hock Road
Noodles or mee are almost considered a staple and as such most locals will have a couple of favorite places. Laksa, however is on a different level and this is where passion enters the discussion.
Laksa is a dish that is found throughout South-East Asia in many different forms and tastes. The Sarawak laksa is a hybrid of local ingredients and tastes reflecting the cultures from which this mixed dish arose. The tangy taste of Sarawak laksa is built on the base of prawn broth, infused with coconut milk, spiced with chili, and flavoured with a local tamarind and a variety of other spices known only to the maker of the paste.
Each laksa stall in Kuching will have their own paste supplier and method (and ingredients) for preparing the broth. The broth is poured over rice noodles and garnished with chicken, egg, prawns and cilantro and served with a side dish of spicy shrimp paste and a lime. The result is a wonderful mix of flavours that Anthony Bourdain (RIP) called the “breakfast of the Gods”. Hyperbole aside – it is indeed a great start to the day.
One of the best places in downtown Kuching to try Sarawak laksa is the Choon Hui Café on Ban Hock Road. In addition to a wonderful laksa, they also have one of the best local Po Piah (spring rolls), made fresh while you wait. The roti kawin (doubled toasted toast) is seemingly out of place, but definitely a local dish – served with coconut preserve. The local kopi ‘o (coffee) served here is prepared in traditional style. This place is local, noisy and crowded and the food sells fast with the vendors usually finished for the day by 11:00 am.
(Another very popular Sarawak laksa can be found at the Chong Choon Café off Abell Road. This place is easy to miss as it is on a little side road, so you need to watch for it and follow the crowd.)
3. Hakka Noodles, Nyan Shin Café, 24 Carpenter Street.
Nyan Shin Café serves hand made noodles Hakka style. You can order this delicious wheat-based noodle dish with either chicken or beef. This place opens very early in the morning so you have to get there before they close (generally by 10:30 am). For variety (or your second bowl) try the thick, short rice-based ‘Rat Tail Noodle’. This delicious dish tastes much better than the name would let on, especially when served with chili soaked in vinegar.
4. Fish Ball Glass Noodles, Low Ya Keng Food Court, 19 Carpenter Street.
Back on Carpenter Street, the temple auditorium known as “Low Ya Keng” is a popular place to eat in Kuching. The busiest stall sells excellent fish ball (and bean curd) glass noodles.
At Low Ya Keng you can also get excellent savoury pork satay, and a tasty pork soup and flat rice noodle called Kueh Chap and OK’ish Sarawak Laksa. On the opposite side of the road in front of the temple is a food stand selling delicious deep-fried banana fritters (‘cucur pisang’). They only open around 1 pm and there is often a queue with stocks going fast. The wait is worth it as the fritters are delicious!
5. Pork or Chicken Rice, Chinese Barbecue Specialist, 50 Padungan Road
It is not all noodles and laksa in Kuching. There are plenty of other dishes to tempt the palate. Beyond the Main Bazaar area, the Chinese BBQ Specialist on Padungan Road delivers exactly what the sign says. A place for meat lovers where you can select from a rack full of roasted duck, chicken, BBQ crispy pork and other wonderful delights. A plate of chicken or pork rice is a flavourful dish that provides a delicious economic lunch. In addition to the rice-based dishes, they serve locally-sourced vegetables such as midin (ferns) and baby kai lan.
6. Mee Jawa or Satay, Sin Hwa Yen Café, 86 Main Bazaar
Fancy a very local dish that originated in Indonesia? Try the Mee Jawa at the Sin Hwa Yen Café (or Syn Wah Hui) on Main Bazaar. The Java noodles are thick and yellow and complimented by a spicy thick sauce. A slice of egg and a sprinkling of chopped chili complete the dish. If this is not filling enough you can order some chicken and beef satay; meat skewers cooked on a BBQ behind the shop. This traditional, very popular shop also serves good local coffee prepared coffee shop style.
7. Pork Noodles or Chicken Curry, Wind Meal Café, 79 Ewe Hai Street
Introducing some new twists to traditional lunch standards, the Wind Meal Café on Ewe Hai Street is providing some new variety. The interesting menu includes delicious chicken curry and tasty pork noodle dishes. This air-con café (a rarity in this part of town) provides a comfortable setting to enjoy lunch. Besides the very good local dishes they also offer some interesting sandwiches. Some of these such as the peanut butter and banana have a distinctly western influence.
8. Dim Sum or Pau at Fock Hai Tim Sum Café, 60 Padungan Road
Not in the mood for something so heavy, try the Fock Hai Tim Sum Café on Padungan Road for a variety of Dim Sum, ‘Char Siew pau’ (local mince meat buns) or ‘Bak pau’ (meat buns). Fock Hai is a local institution whose clientele have followed them in spite of a couple of moves. The vibrant coffee shop atmosphere serves to make the good food taste event better.
9. Mixed / Economy Rice, Country Kitchen, 97 Padungan Road.
Cheap, tasty and plenty of choice pretty much sums up this very popular fast food joint. Each day there are 20-25 dishes to choose from. Fish, chicken, pork, deer meat and a wide range of vegetable dishes, plus noodles or rice. Just queue up at the stall and point to the dishes you desire. The staff will heap your chosen dishes onto a plate of steamed rice. Prices are based on the number of dishes. Expect to pay between RM 4-8 per person. Busy at lunchtimes and early evening.
10. Vegan Food, Indah Café, Jalan Cina (off Carpenter Street)
Indah Café serves halal and vegan food in a relaxed and colourful setting. Their Nasi Lemak is not only very tasty but also nicely presented on a banana leaf and wicker plates. Their vegan dishes are gaining notice, especially the veggie burger and for a cool change try the Soba Noodles – great on a hot day.