KK has an incredible range of delicious food walking distance from most hostels (on Gaya Street or in Kampung Air). Here we bring you our favourite food spots on a backpacker’s budget, which are (probably) walking distance from your hostel.
A quick note: single-use plastics are used excessively at KK’s market stalls. Every time we went to the markets, we brought our own takeaway containers and metal straws. We got a few funny looks from stallholders, but it was worth it to know that my straw wouldn’t end up in the sea. You can buy metal tupperware at the Sunday Gaya Street markets or regular plastic containers from any supermarket, and metal straws from Biru Biru or Nook Cafe.
Yee Fung Laksa ($)
Our top pick is the laksa at the ever-packed Yee Fung Laksa. The staff have an efficient operation going on, and although it looks like there are no tables, you will be called over to a table in no time.
Push through the hordes of people to your table and for a few ringgit, you will get an enormous bowl of creamy, curry soup with prawns, chicken and shredded omelette. Make sure you squeeze the juice of the small lime into your laksa.
Have this with iced tea tarik, a sweet tea made from condensed milk poured at a height to make it frothy. This meal will surely leave you ready for an afternoon nap. Somehow, many laksa shops open at 6am for breakfast, including Yee Fung. Although we love Yee Fung Laksa, we weren’t quite ready for dawn laksa. Yee Fung is particularly convenient if you’re staying at Akinabalu Youth Hostel, our favourite budget lodging in KK.
Feeling like something a little less intense? We also highly recommend the Hainanese chicken rice at the shop next door.
Goreng Kuih Lobak and other food at the night markets under the footbridge ($)
You can smell and hear these markets before you see them. A sweet, rotting scent reaches your nostrils from streets away. Men with megaphones yell ‘Lai lai lai’ to the busloads of Chinese tourists shopping for different strains of durian, the pungent tropical fruit that looks like a grenade from the outside and smells rotten on the inside.
Every night, underneath an unremarkable footbridge, a local market springs to life from about 4.30pm onwards. Pass the durian mania and you will be rewarded with an array of food stalls. Locals on their way home from work stop by the Malay food buffet stalls, where you can serve yourself several dishes with rice for a few dollars. If you’re after quick, cheap, tasty and filling takeaway, look no further.
Wandering through the markets, you may not notice a Hakka-Malaysian man sitting behind his ‘Goreng Kuih Lobek’ stall, chatting with friends or just watching the world go by. Some locals ordered and we watched as he took out some blobby white cubes and began to fry them. Whatever he was making smelled amazing so we ordered some for ourselves. As he cooked, we asked what we were about to eat and he replied ‘white carrot’. The white carrot is fried with egg, sprouts and shallots. Upon further research, this ‘white carrot’ is fried raddish. Highly recommended for only 8 ringgit.
A few stalls down, a couple sells ‘kueh’, Malaysian sweet snacks often made with rice, coconut cream and palm sugar. Our favourite was ‘ kueh salat’ – the lime green and white cake made from sticky rice, coconut milk, sugar and pandan, or the ‘Kuih dadar’ – green crepes filled with shredded coconut and palm sugar. Or just try them all. We spent many nights here for dinner, and would highly recommend checking out these markets. They are located under a footbridge on Jalan Segama, which is to the left of H2 Hostel.
If nothing takes your fancy here, wander down to the Filipino markets a few minutes walk away, which have endless fresh seafood stalls, chicken skewers and fresh coconuts.
The food court under Centre Point mall ($)
I wouldn’t usually recommend a mall for good food, but Centre Point’s food court was a treat for local food. Centre Point mall is an eclectic mix of dodgy phone sell and repair shops, cheap massages and hair salons. If you want brand name items, look elsewhere. Take the escalator down to the bottom floor, and you’ll find an enormous Malay food court. Here you can find serve-yourself Malay buffets, where you can pile your plate high with fresh fish, curry, fried eggplant and vegetables for a few dollars. Our pick was the sweet and sour fish with eggplant.
Looking for something lighter? You can also get incredible roti here, the delicious soft yet crispy Malay fried bread. Our favourite is roti canai, which is the plain roti with curry sauce for dipping, or roti pisang – banana roti. You can get your roti filled with almost anything here, with all types of meat, eggs, and vegetables, or sweet roti in the shape of a large cone. We never figured out what ‘roti bomb’ is, so if anyone does, please let us know.
Gaya Street night markets ($)
On Friday and Saturday nights, Gaya Street comes alive with market stalls. The markets are quite touristy but have a pleasant vibe.
The freshly-made char kuay teow is not to be missed here – quick-fried flat noodles with prawn, chicken, egg and shallots. This oily treat will keep you full for days. Wander a bit further down and there is a cluster of food trucks selling Malaysian and Indonesian food, or you can opt for freshly made dumplings or the aforementioned ‘white carrot’.
The markets run until 2am, and are often accompanied by live music of varying quality. From personal experience, we would recommend not having a room facing Gaya Street on Friday or Saturday nights for this reason.
El Centro ($$-$$$)
We were skeptical when someone first told us that you can get great Mexican food in KK. Returning to KK after a multi-week loop around Sabah, we were craving something other than fried noodles, and decided to give it a go. We were not disappointed. El Centro looks more like a bar that you’d be drinking in at 3am than a restaurant, a dark concrete room decorated with colourful flags and alcohol bottles.
We shared the vegetarian 3-bean chilli bowl and the grilled vegetable tacos, which were delicious. It was glorious to have cheese again after more than a month. It might not be what you get in Mexico or Southern California, but it sure did hit the spot for us.
Nook Cafe – best coffee and in Kota Kinabalu ($$$)
Are you missing flat whites as much as us? Nook Cafe makes a solid coffee that will quench your caffeine-cravings and get your neurons firing at top speed.
They also have spacious tables, air-con and fast WiFi, which means the cafe is usually occupied by other tourists doing their travel planning and waiting for their laundry from the laundromat a few doors down. The cafe has a few interesting books floating around, including an old colonial book on the ‘Headhunters of Borneo’ and children’s environmental education picture books.
We were never bold enough to fork out the coin for brunch here, but from what we saw, it looked pretty good. We also heard that October Coffee House a few doors down makes good coffee, but our caffeine cravings were too strong for us to wait for this one, which doesn’t open until 10am.
Biru Biru ($$-$$$)
Fed up with fried, sweet and/or oily food? Feeling like a meal that won’t put strain on your arteries or cause your blood sugar to skyrocket? Head to Biru Biru for a poke bowl. You might miss this cafe/restaurant, which sits behind a busy roundabout on the ground floor of a blue building on a main road in and out of KK. The inside is decorated nicely with vintage Chinese posters.
The salmon poke bowl is filled with fresh raw salmon, edamame beans and shredded seaweed with brown rice. You can also ‘build your own bowl’ and choose from a range of healthy ingredients including tofu, kimchi, pineapple and avocado. As previously mentioned, you can buy metal straws here for a few dollars.
An added bonus is that happy hour runs for about 5 hours, 7 nights per week. We had some pretty delicious pina coladas with our meals (because we didn’t want to be too healthy).