January 2007: 100 Very Best Restaurants

What this downtown dining room lacks in ambiance, it makes up for with vibrant Malaysian cooking.

No. 93: Malaysia Kopitiam

Bored with your food groups? Try this Kon Tiki–meets–M Street hideaway. The warren of rooms has the feel of an underground bunker, dark and low-ceilinged, but the homespun Malaysian cooking, which brings together the flavors of India and China, more than makes up for it.

Unlike some ethnic eateries where communication can be hard, owners Penny and Leslie Phoon spell things out for diners with words and pictures. Eating with a group is the ideal way to experience Malaysia Kopitiam. Not only will you be able to order a feast for next to nothing, but much of the fun is in the contrast of flavors and textures.

The menu cuts a wide swath, from warming curries like tamarind beef with okra, eggplant, and spicy tamarind to street fare like  roti canai, thick pancakes with creamy curry chicken as a dipper, and sticky rice with minced chicken and shrimp, steamed in a banana leaf. There are assertive stir-fries, like the tangy, kicky  assam sambal  shrimp, and kitchen-sink salads like the  rojak, which brings jícama, tofu, egg, peanuts, sesame seeds, and shrimp fritters into a lively, riotous whole.

Many of the flavors show up over and over, so roam widely across the menu. Otherwise, caution makes no sense, especially where a meal costs only slightly more than you’d pay at the McDonald’s across the street. And far less than the lap dances at Camelot next door.

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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.