A friend visiting from the States once observed that Kuala Lumpur is a lot like Los Angeles. I've not spent much time in Los Angeles, but from what I've heard about the place I reckon he's right.
To whit: KL is a Car Town (or, at least, a motorcycle town). Our train system may look impressive on a map but at ground it's an overall disappointment. There's buses, but they don't ply enough routes to be super convenient and on many of the routes the vehicle travels in one direction only - meaning that if you want to get from point E to D you'll have to sit through stops F, G, A, B, and C first. As for taxis - don't get me started.
Also: Kuala Lumpur is a spread-out city, a collection of neighborhoods linked by a tangle of freeways masquerading as 'roads'.
And: There's not alot happening, culinarily speaking, downtown. The Petronas Towers are awesome but I'd really rather eat elsewhere.
Like in the 'hoods.
Which brings me to PJ, an acronym (it's a fact that Malaysians, given half a chance, will acronym-ize anything) for Petaling Jaya, a collection of satellite neighborhoods called 'sections' (seksyens) that bear numbers corresponding to the order in which they were built: Section 17, Section 2, etc. If you're staying in KL for any length of time you owe it to yourself to grab a taxi (yes, unfortunately, only a taxi will get you there) and head out to PJ, because the various sections boast plenty of good eating.
I suggest Old Town - more slang for PJ 1, the first section to be hacked out of rubber estates way back in the early fifties. The best word I can think of to describe Old Town is 'funky', and I mean that in an entirely agreeable way. It's streets are lined with old wooden and concrete single-story bungalows, its 'downtown' is a mish-mash of fast-food restaurants, hawker stalls, and kitchen and household goods stores stocked with a mind-boggling assortment of items, and many of its eateries have been around for decades.
You might start at Old Town's market, which is jumping and heaving most mornings, weekends especially. Prices are low-to-the-ground cheap, so folks from outside Old Town come to shop there as well. It's one of those authentically Malaysia-Truly-Asia kind of places, not a product of official muscle but just the sort of scene that arises when folks of different races, left to their own devices, happen to end up sharing a neighborhood, or just an affinity for good fresh foods at rock-bottom prices. A trip to the PJ Old Town morning market always reminds me that Malaysia, among its ASEAN neighbors, is really a pretty special place.
On Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays only you'll find, in a dingy rear corner of the market, husband-and-wife team Mr. Chang and Mrs. Kok, purveyors of a memorable nasi lemak. The dish's barely coconut-scented rice (grains intact and distinct) is garnished with Mrs. Kok's locally famous chicken curry with potatoes, two types of sambal (one hot and spicy, made with ikan bilis or tiny dried anchovies, the other comprised of mini prawns in a mild tomato-chili sauce), and a piquant dried condiment of dried prawns ground with shrimp paste and chilies.
Mr. Chang was born in Old Town some 59 years ago and, with his wife, has been selling nasi lemak from the same spot in the market for over thirty years. Both are retired. I once asked Mr. Chang about their abbreviated business hours. Why not also sell during the week? His answer: 'Why bother? We make good enough money, and Monday to Friday we can relax with the grandkids. We could work harder and get more money, but what for?'
I can't help but admire his attitude.
If you arrive in Old Town too late for breakfast then there's always the possibility of a home-cooked lunch. An old house on Jalan Pasar 1/21 is an open secret among local eaters for the fabulous pork noodles that are served, unadvertised, out back (you can also eat in the family's kitchen). You don't need a sign. Follow the crowds.
Novelty value aside, these are some seriously good pork noodles. The supremely porcine broth is packed with choy sum (Chinese mustard) and crowned with a little mound of fried garlic and crispy crackling. Yong tau foo (stuffed bean curd, fried bean curd skin, etc.) is an optional go-with, and it's all fantastically fresh. And then there's the siu gao (boiled dumplings), bursting at their seams with minced pork and nubs of water chestnuts and carrots.
Noodles, of course, can be had wet (in soup) or dry (mixed with dark soy, soup on the side). Unless you're a regular you won't get the warm and fuzzy here, but the place is PJ Old Town personified: characterful, old-style, and well worth the discerning eater's time.
Just up the street you'll find Chan Lee and her tong sui and herbal teas stall. Mrs. Lee - usually kitted out in Chinese auntie pajamas, a wide-brimmed straw hat, and thick-framed dark sunglasses that would inspire envy in the heart of any Chinese Communist Party cadre - has been an Old Town fixture for 45 years, which would make her business nearly as old as the place itself (her son takes over late in the afternoon).
I'm a late but fervent convert to tong sui, or sweet soups. As incongruous as some of their ingredients may seem to the Western palate, they're in actuality not too sweet, light, refreshing, and - though usually served warm - really do, as advertised, cool you down on a hot day. Ms. Lee's standouts include her tong yuen, smooth, chewy glutinous rice balls filled with sesame paste and floating in a spicy ginger syrup; I also like the white cloud fungus and longan in herbal broth.
Her five herbs tea, however, I just can't countenance. The thickish moss green concoction - a favorite with lorry drivers, judging by the number of trucks that stop at the stall whenever I'm there - is so awfully bitter I could only manage a swallow (this of course means, according to the logic of Chinese herbal medicine, that it's incredibly good for you) before returning the glass to Ms. Lee, who offered it as a freebie the last time I visited.
I felt like an uncouth ingrate, but Ms. Lee understood my limitations: 'Not many foreigners,' she said, nodding, 'can take that drink.'