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  • Writer's pictureMarcus Teoh

Washington Post Restaurateur of the Year back in Business: Malaysian Kopitiam

Early October 2018, I was wowed from attending Technology, Ecosystem and Culture (TEC) Immersion Program for Retail and Food and Beverage Enterprises at University of California Berkeley.  With close to forty entrepreneurs and business owners flying all the way to Berkeley from Kuala Lumpur, we learned about American start-ups and established businesses in the technology, retail and food and beverage industries (including visiting Café X, Target and Google) from course instructors who wear multiple hats including entrepreneur, consultant, investor and professor.

Today (Saturday 13 October) I happened to be at the right place and the right time to experience first-hand the re-opening of a food and beverage business as I drop by Washington DC to visit Uncle Leslie and Auntie Penny Phoon.  It was the second day Malaysian Kopitiam is opened. 14 years ago, after I completed my undergraduate studies, I visited Malaysia Kopitiam in the Washington DC area, a place Malaysians would flock to satisfy their cravings for satay, nasi lemak, char kway tiao, roti canai and more.

Malaysia Kopitiam Founders
Dining with Master Chefs Aunty Penny and Uncle Phoon, Founders of Malaysia Kopitiam

I still remember witnessing Uncle Leslie’s craft is producing thin popiah (better known as crepes to locals) skin with just one hand.  Within seconds, with one hand holding flour, he made “one round” on the hot pan and the popiah skin was taken off from the pan with the other hand! 

Master Chef Uncle Leslie Phoon
Uncle Leslie Phoon making popiah skin back in November 2004

Malaysia Kopitiam back in 2004
Malaysia Kopitiam back in 2004

As I was seated at the table eating and later Facebooking, I overheard quite a few phone calls and patrons mentioning Peter Pan.  It was a Chinese Restaurant before being taken over by Malaysian Kopitiam now.  Malaysia Kopitiam then has won several accolades including the Washington Post Restaurateur of the Year and Washingtonian Best Bargain Restaurant Award for seven years!

Malaysia Kopitiam featured on Washington Post, 100 Best
Malaysia Kopitiam featured in Washingtonian Post, 100 Best Bargain

I tasted so many dishes and I understood why Malaysia Kopitiam then did so well and why now Malaysian Kopitiam will do exceptionally well again.  These dishes were simply excellent!

What really stood out was my mamak mee goreng.  Simple as it seems the aroma, texture and the large prawns made me finish the whole plate!  Other popular dishes include Wan Tan Hor (soupy flat noodles), nasi lemak and popiah.  I could not find something I did not like.  

Malaysia Kopitiam's Wat Tan Hor
Loved the Wan Tan Hor! Kway Teow Soup... huge and delicious!

Besides the great food, I observed how Uncle Leslie and Auntie Phoon did something most restaurateur don't do.  They meet and chat with patrons and know many of them by their names!  Being Malaysian, Uncle Leslie introduced a few fellow Malaysians to me.  It was not just a food place but a place for fellow Malaysians to meet up.  Who wouldn't visit a place where you feel like home, despite being far away from home?

I spent two afternoons at Malaysian Kopitiam, both feasting and meeting Malaysians, one was a successful finance entrepreneur, a tour guide and a festival organizer whom I will stay connected closely to after our very long chat.  Uncle Leslie was not just an entrepreneur but also a connector who adds significant value by connecting his customers to customers.

When Auntie Penny shared her journey I was amazed to know that this is their 6th food and beverage business, having spent 33 years in this industry!  They have opened Chinese Food places, Malaysian Food Outlets, catered for Universities and major corporations including the Department of State and the World Bank.  The long working hours and hard laborious work did not deter the couple to still be in the food and beverage business.

Best sambal belacan you can find!
With this sambal belacan you can keep your Siracha!

If you miss Malaysian food in the United States, I am confident Malaysian Kopitiam is a must visit for you and you can thank me later.  Alternatively if you want to learn some best practices and get some advice in running a food and beverage business in the United States, talk to Uncle Leslie and if you are lucky Auntie Penny when she is out from the kitchen.  They have faced and overcame so much over the past 33 years and their one word of advice will be invaluable for those who are serious about their food and beverage business.

Patron chatting with Aunty Penny and Uncle Leslie
A good restaurant makes patrons feel like home!

Congratulations again Malaysian Kopitiam!  A family that eats together stays together.  May the Malaysian community be more closely connected than ever to make our nation proud, now that they have a place to feast and connect.

Malaysia Kopitiam Menu
Malaysia Kopitiam Menu

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