The air at Kopitiam smells of sesame oil and sambal. Copies of the New York Times hang from clipboards. Patrons type away on their MacBooks at a communal table, while others write in their journals, sipping pink rose-scented milk through lavender straws, or ghee-laced coffee from decorative china.
One of New York’s increasingly expensive luxuries — outside of giant food halls at least — is sitting down to a leisurely meal while reading a novel, sketching in a notebook, or blogging away on a laptop. As high rents kill off the city’s beloved diners, a modern class of fast-casual chains and all-day spots are vying to serve as the bourgeois successors to endangered working class institutions.
I’m thinking of that new Peruvian joint where a sandwich and a smoothie will set you back $30. I’m thinking about the Italian-American deli chain that doesn’t take cash. And I’m thinking about a French cafe where humble anchovies run $21. The upscale-ifcation of everyday establishments — often performed under the guise of making ambitious food more accessible — is one of the more troubling narratives of life in modern Manhattan.
Kopitiam, chef Kyo Pang’s affordable stunner of an all-day Malaysian spot counters that narrative. A full meal here can cost less than a typical order of avocado toast.
This is where you go for a restorative bowl of pan mee soup ($10), a soul-warming meal packed with ground pork, hand-torn noodles, and tiny fried anchovies; the oily fish impart the broth with a profound richness that increases the longer they soak.
This is where you go for milk toast sandwiches: crustless white bread as airy as angel food cake and spread with a layer of green pandan-coconut jam that’s thicker than most burgers. The cost is $5, and the bread doubles as a dipping agent for a soup of soy sauce-spiked soft boiled eggs.
This is where you go to fall in love with Manhattan again.
If any of these dishes sound familiar, that’s because this is Pang’s second Kopitiam. The first was a critically-acclaimed shop on Canal that closed in December 2017. The culprit? A rent increase. Kopitiam 2.0 is a partnership with Moonlynn Tsai, the ex-general manager of Silverlake’s hip Taiwanese Pine & Crane, and it now has a far larger space on East Broadway, all the better for lounging and lingering.
Kopitiam bills itself as a “fast casual eatery,” and to a certain extent that’s true; diners pay before eating and bus their own tables. But since in our modern parlance, fast casual typically refers to places that overcharge for things that used to be affordable, Pang’s venue is better defined by an older, more universally-accessible business model: the cafe. The venue’s own name suggests as much; kopitiam, with a lowercase k, refers to larger class of informal eating and drinking establishments found throughout Indonesia and Malaysia. The term literally translates as coffee shop.
Malaysian cuisine, like the namesake country, is almost head spinningly multi-ethnic, reflecting influences that are at once Thai, Chinese, indigenous, Indian, Indonesian, and Bornean. Chef Pang specializes in the food of her Baba Nyonya heritage, a term referring to descendants of the first Chinese to settle in Malaysia, having arrived between the 15th and 17th centuries. The cuisine, also known as Peranakan, blends Malay and Chinese sensibilities, along with colonial-era traces of Dutch, Portuguese, and British cooking.
Local aficionados of Southeast Asian fare know that Nyonya, a small chain with outposts in Manhattan, Bensonhurst, and Borough Park, also serves a bit of Peranakan food. But while Nyonya is a proper restaurant, Kopitiam, again, is a more relaxed, roomy hangout, with classic rock piping through the sound system, like Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Dire Straits.
And unlike Nyonya, there’s a strong focus here on kuih, small snack foods, that the chef’s family has been selling in Penang for the past half century. One of the best is the classic Malaysian curry puff ($3); bite into the flaky pastry and out squirts a heady spiced potato paste. The pulut inti is impressive as well, a ball of sticky rice turned blue — butterfly pea flowers impart the grains with a cyanic hue — anointed with a gold palm sugar-coconut crown.
Late risers will appreciate that breakfast, which begins at 9:00 a.m., is served all day, with offerings that are gorgeously savory. Case in point: the nasi lemak, essentially the national dish of Malaysia. A pile of coconut rice sits underneath a roof of peanuts, fried anchovies, and housemade sambal belacan; the crimson paste of chile, lime, calamansi, and fermented shrimp acts as the fiery, funky backbone of the dish. Like so many other preparations at Kopitiam, the nasi lemak is a study in the perfection of tradition.
There are no weak spots on the menu. Pang does a fine Nyonya rendition of otak-otak, a fish quiche that’s steamed in a banana leaf and tinged yellow with herbs. You let the coarse, spongy cake crumble in your mouth, an act that unleashes the dish’s potent aromas (a wallop of kaffir) and ample heat (an uppercut of chiles).
Pork deep fried in bean curd sheets shatter with the delicacy of crisp phyllo; the loosely-packed meat smacks of sweet five spice. Stir-fried duck tongues burst with an intense, fatty saltiness. And the kitchen wraps glutinous rice around dried shrimp for what’s essentially a dry-aged, corn-free, oceanic analogue to a tamal. It is perfect.
Also perfect are the cool rice noodles — firm, stretchy strands sitting in a pool of chile-sesame sauce. It’s the type of dish that calls for beer, but Kopitiam doesn’t serve alcohol yet, and quite frankly there’s something liberating about this, to both the senses and the wallet. A glass of soy milk with grass jelly drink cools the palate with just as much efficiency as any pilsner.
Kopitiam has a retail component too, though it’s not oppressively aspirational. There are no shelves filled with $150 artisanal hats like at Llamita. There are no showrooms hawking $16,000 couches like at La Mercerie. The only items up for grabs are packs of coffee, cheap t-shirts and hats, jars of that sweet coconut pandan jam, and that tongue-singing sambal. I’m happy enough, however, enjoying everything at Kopitiam proper, letting the buttery ghee tame the bitterness of my black coffee as I reach for more milk toast.