Malaysian restaurant Kopitiam returns to the Lower East Side today, serving baba-nyonya food, which was introduced to Malaysia by Chinese immigrants and combines Chinese and Malay cuisines. Located at 151 East Broadway between Rutgers and Pike streets, the revamped restaurant will be an all-day affair with an emphasis on sweet treats.
Chef-owner Kyo Pang opened the original Kopitiam in a tiny space at 51b Canal St. in October 2015, serving a small menu of Malaysian snacks, small plates, and desserts. Shortly after opening, the restaurant received glowing praise in Ligaya Mishan’s Hungry City column. But a rent increase forced Pang to close it in December 2017.
To reopen Kopitiam in a bigger space and with an expanded menu, Pang teamed up with restaurateur Moonlynn Tsai, who previously helped opened uber-hip LA Taiwanese restaurant and cafe Pine and Crane. Tsai tells Eater NY that she’d already been a big fan of Kopitiam after finding it via a Yelp search for Malaysian food in NYC. She fell in love. “Now I’m on the other side of it,” Tsai says, noting how many fans of the original Kopitiam have been visiting the new location ahead of its opening to say how excited they are for its comeback.
Tsai and Pang have spent the past several months developing the menu and look of the new Kopitiam, which at 35 seats is much bigger than the original. They had a “DIY Pinterest” approach to building the restaurant, Tsai says. A lot of the trinkets and decor come from Malaysia, brought over by Pang’s brother on a recent visit to the U.S. as well as shipped over by Pang’s mother.
It’s a deeply personal project. Both of them come from restaurant families: Tsai started working in her family’s restaurants in San Diego as a teenager, and Pang’s family owns a restaurant in Penang. For Pang, the look and vibe of her revamped Kopitiam makes her nostalgic for the “kopitiams” — or coffeeshops — of her hometown.
“I was very close with my dad, and every morning, he would go to the market to hand pick every single thing he needed for his restaurant,” she says. “And when he was waiting for all the vegetables to be put in his van, he would have a quick breakfast so we would hang out a coffeeshop right at the street market.” Kopitiams, she says, hold a lot of meaning for the people of Malaysia. “It’s a place where you already have a routine,” she says. “It’s a second home.”
To fit that comfortable, homey feeling, Pang has developed an all-day menu of snacks, small plates, and sweets. Everything on the menu is $12 or less, with several snack and sweet options for $5 or less. The menu emphasizes simplicity and tradition — most of the recipes are from her family, according to Pang. “A lot of our menu is things other restaurants are not serving right now,” she says.
From 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., Kopitiam serves a breakfast menu of various toasts, Malaysian-style boiled eggs, chilled stir-fried noodles with veggies, and a fish ball soup that Pang remembers eating often as a kid. The toasts are prepared like french toasts, thick-cut and topped with things like chocolate malt powder or sugar.
On the all-day menu, Pang focuses on snacks like spicy stir-fried duck tongue, a grilled fish cake wrapped in banana leaves, and rainbow sticky rice that’s colored with flowers and herbs. Mains include the very common Malaysian dish nasi lemak, made with coconut rice, fried anchovies, cucumber, peanuts, and a hard boiled egg.
Continuing with the personal touches on the food, one dish called pan mee — a Hakka-style flat flour noodle that’s part of Malaysian-Chinese cuisine — reflects both Pang’s heritage and Tsai’s, whose mother is Hakka.
As with the original Kopitiam, sweets are a major focus. There are several kinds of kuih — bite-sized desserts — on the menu, including a honeycomb cake with brown sugar and a coconut crepe. Mochi, Malaysian shaved ice with red beans, corn, and grass jelly, as well as strawberry and mango variations of shaved ice, are on the menu. For drinks, an extensive tea and coffee list is available, including black coffee with ghee and Penang-style white coffee, which the original Kopitiam was known for. See the full menu below.
Kopitiam opens with special hours today, starting at 11 a.m. Starting Thursday, Kopitiam will be open Sunday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.