Kuantan: The Malaysian food paradise you’ve never heard of



Ok, maybe you’ve heard of the place. Maybe you’ve even been. But did you know where to find the best grub?

SINGAPORE — What to do if you have a weekend with a Volkswagen Arteon? If you’re a driving nerd like everyone at CarBuyer HQ, you hit the open road (and hope it doesn’t hit back)!


It wasn’t my plan take the Arteon on a road trip, but having no children and no pets to look after, plus a spontaneous wife to look after me, meant being able to jump behind the wheel, point the car north, and just keep going and going.

The wife and I immediately knew where we wanted to go: Kuantan, a place with sea, food, and seafood. We threw a weekend bag together and left after dinner on Friday night, arriving at half past two in the morning after nearly seven hours behind the wheel, covering more than 400km.

That might sound grueling but a sumptuous and comfy interior, along with a killer DynAudio sound system, made the journey a breeze in the Arteon.

The east coast town is only about as far away from Singapore as Kuala Lumpur, but it might as well be a universe apart.

Unlike the bustling capital, it’s laid-back and relatively sparsely populated. The road there and back, if you stick to the coast, offers the occasional glimpse of the sea, and not far out of the town itself, things feel properly rural.

Kuantan is also home to some of the best curry noodles on the planet. The chance to slurp a bowl of this stuff down was reason enough to hurry there in the Arteon.

A must-visit place for a curry kuey teow? That’ll depend on who you ask. Many locals swear by Restoran Hoi Yin, a ceaselessly crowded joint in a shophouse within sniffing distance of the South China Sea at the gorgeous sands of Teluk Cempedak.

 

One look at the state of the dark, undecorated premises tells you that the food here has to be something to text home about. Hoi Yin proves the adage that a place that serves decent grub doesn’t have to try when it comes to decor.

You’ll be asked if you want your noodles kon loh (dry, with a sweet, dark sauce) or in curry. The correct answer is: both.

That way you’ll be served dry noodles with a bowl of curry on the side, which you can further customise by adding extra tau pok, fishcake, foo chok (sliced beancurd skin) and so on.

At Hoi Yin, the curry is on the brothy side, lightly spiced but deeply flavourful, so it makes the perfect breakfast dish.

If it’s a heavier, party-in-your-mouth type of curry you want instead, head for Jess Cafe. Surprisingly, entering “Jess Cafe” into the Discover Pro navigation system called up an entry with the right address for the place.

It’s either just that famous, or someone at VW is in the know about these things.

Either way (and because you can never get enough curry noodles), we demolished two bowls of the cafe’s rich curry soup with a noodle and kuey teow mix, turbocharging the whole lot with yong tau foo extras.

What Malaysian cuisine reminds you is that in our part of the world, there’s practically no line between breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s pretty much all the same, which is how curry qualifies as a breakfast item.

For something a little more traditionally breakfasty, there’s the highly-rated Dai Sou Nasi Lemak, tucked away in a quiet neighbourhood, as the best places usually are. “Lorong Alor Akar”, the sort of lane so small that there are at least 16 of them, is the area we wanted, and it’s only thanks to the navigation system that we found it.

Although ostensibly an outlet for authentic nasi lemak, Dai Sou is also famed for its Hakka thunder tea rice and pan mee. Being sambal fiends, we stuck to the nasi lemak with a side of chicken curry.

Verdict? A little more coconut flavour in the rice would have amped it up. No one eats nasi lemak for health reasons, anyway, so when you’re making it you might as well go nuts.

With only a Saturday night to spend in town, and a single meal ticket to punch for dinner, we agonised between Mexica Garden, a large joint in the heart of town with an innovative, competition-winning chef, and Pak Su, a seaside, kelong-style restaurant a few minutes north of the city.

We opted for the humbler fare of Restoran Pak Su, for its overall bang-for-buck excellence in being the kind of place that leaves your wallet feeling as grateful as your stomach.

Must-try dishes here include salted egg yolk anything, but we chose sotong. Its crunchy texture was a perfect match for the moreish, crisp coating of salted egg yolk.

Unlike the gloppy stuff you sometimes find at home, the sauce here is almost a batter, and one with the right amount of sweetness to set off the savoury notes of salted egg.

Next up was a plate of kam heong lala — golden fragrant clams if you want a translation.

Kam heong is a difficult flavour to describe, but it basically involves a spicy, aromatic paste that seems to hit every flavour button on your tongue in harmony, the way a pianist thumps the right keys at the right times.

Lala itself tastes a bit like the ocean, but in this sauce you just order it because you can use the shells to shovel that kam heong goodness into your mouth.

Apart from the usual crab and fish dishes, something worth trying at Pak Su is the prawn with thousand island sauce.

I know it sounds weird, but the sauce is a delightfully rich, unctuous, lip-smacking concoction that seems to be something of a local specialty — you can also find thousand island chicken here and at Mexica Garden. As a tourist, you’d be remiss not to try some.

We left Kuantan having actually spent only 20 hours there, during which time we’d had four meals.

That might not seem like good enough reason to make the journey, but the other attraction of driving up the east coast of Malaysia is the chance to blitz down Federal Route 3.

Click the map to see our route to Kuantan

Also known as the Mersing highway, it has its scenic stretches that either cut through jungle or skirt the coastline. Started in 1886 and finally completed in 1962 (that’s contractors for you), it links Johor Bahru with the Thai border and covers 739km, making Kuantan something of a midway point.

In 2010 the National Geographic Society called it one of the ten best coastal highways in Asia.

But what any keen driver would really relish are the twisty, undulating sections north and south of Mersing town, the perfect setting for a powerful car like the Arteon to stretch its legs.

Under its sculpted clamshell bonnet is the 280 horsepower engine from the fearsome Golf R), and it has VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system for awesome traction. In an Arteon you can accelerate from 0 to 100km/h in a speedy 5.6 seconds without fighting a steering wheel that’s bucking violently because the front tyres are scrabbling for grip.

That gives you the confidence for fast, safe overtaking on the single-lane parts of the road, while the surefooted handling and responsive steering enable the Arteon driver to simply lap up corners.

The food in Kuantan may be a treat, but in a car like this the sinuous bends that take you there are the real feast.

And if you want to take friends along, the rear seats have an enormous amount of legroom, and the swoopy shape of the roofline doesn’t gobble up headroom. Basically you’ll still all be friends at the end of the weekend.

Meanwhile the liftback shape creates not just space for a weekend’s luggage for everyone, but enough spare room to bring home the loot from a serious assault on a factory outlet store.

It wasn’t long we crossed the border back into Singapore, with a gentle reminder from the Arteon about the lower speed limits here, as if to signal the end of our excursion.

Essentially the Arteon was built for Europeans to tackle snowy Alps and the autobahn system but still look dashing parked outside, say, the Paris Opera House. So, nearly a thousand kilometres over a weekend? Child’s play for a proper grand tourer like the Arteon.

In a such a comfortable, powerful and agile car, when the weekend rolls around the real question that comes up is never whether to go on a road trip, but where to go.

FARAWAY FOOD

Here’s you came for (and what we went to Kuantan for)

  • Dai Sou Nasi Lemak
    5138, Lorong Alor Akar 15, Taman Mewah, 25250 Kuantan, Pahang
  • Restoran Hoi Yin
    No. 31, Jalan Teluk Cempedak,25050,Kuantan, 25050, Kuantan, PahanG
  • Jess Cafe
    No. A15, 80, Star City Square,, Jalan Seri Kuantan, East Coast Garden, 25250 Kuantan
  • Pak Su Seafood Restaurant
    4/1417, Jalan Beserah, Tanah Putih, 25150 Kuantan

 


Also try these if you have more than 20 hours in town

  • Mexica Garden Restaurant
    4-10, Lorong Tun Ismail 11, Sri Dagangan Business Centre, 25000 Kuantan
  • Satay Zul
    No. A 2600, Jalan Alor Akar, Pahang, 25250 Kuantan

 

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Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.