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Phraya Thai
Photograph: Darinee Durai

The best cheap eats in Kuala Lumpur

Fuel up with these critics-approved cheap eats – all under RM15. Your chow-down starts now. Additional reporting by Darinee Durai

Written by
Time Out KL editors
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Eating well doesn’t mean you have to pay more, especially if you're in a food-centric city like Kuala Lumpur. Wherever you may be in the city, at any time of the day, there's bound to be a hot dish waiting for you... under RM15. We’ve got you covered for the best cheap eats at these eateries under RM15 our city has to offer.

  • Restaurants
  • Indian

It took almost 10 years for Senivasagam Manikam aka Seni to finalise the base recipe and the method used for his claypot rice. While he was working with the Japanese, one asked him what sort of food do Malaysian Indian hawkers do à la minute? Instead of listing down dishes that Indians do prepare on the spot, the question sparked an idea in Seni’s head. He tried cooking all sorts of dishes and found them to be unsatisfying, nothing feasible for a business. “I tried and gave up multiple times before getting positive feedback for this particular style of food cooked in a claypot,” he shares.

Now if you think you’re going to get charred bits of rice stuck to the claypot like you’d be accustomed to with Chinese versions, you might be disappointed. In Chinese versions, the rice is usually cooked in the claypot with the other ingredients. For Seni’s version, the onions, tomatoes, curry leaves and masala are sautéed first. Then the choice of protein is added and thoroughly cooked before cooked rice is stirred in. The mixture is left in the claypot for a few more minutes and then served immediately. The result is a dish where ideally every rice grain is coated well and retains its heat as you keep eating.

It’s not at all watery like when you’d have curries with white rice and if you’d like your dish to be different from the standard masala, you could tell them you’d like something else. They’ll be able to tell you what other types they can make for you on the day itself. They are able to do claypot varuvals, paratels and other types of South Indian styles. Curious about the types of proteins they have? Well, the usual suspects like chicken (RM11), mutton (RM14), prawns (RM17), squids (RM14), fish (RM17) are there. There are two sizes; the smaller gets you one drink and the bigger, two drinks. You could also ask if they have duck or turkey or crabs and check the price with them as it is subject to change. If you’re dining with someone and don’t mind sharing, a banana leaf ‘set’ is an option at RM29. This consists of rice, a choice of protein (kampung chicken or mutton) and a vegetable.

Seni SattiSorru has been in Brickfields for three years and the crowds are inevitable during lunch hours as well as the weekends. In fact, the demand is so high, Seni has opened his second outlet in Klang, third in Malacca, fourth in Johor Bahru and said he is scheduled to open in places like Penang and even Singapore. To circumvent any inconsistencies in those franchises, Seni says, “The masalas and spices will all be done in a central location and delivered to them.”

  • Restaurants
  • Malay
  • Mutiara Damansara
  • price 1 of 4

This famous corner lot next to a mosque is old news for nasi kukus fiends. Here’s proof: a thriving Facebook fan page (with nearly 19k fans), ‘panjang gila’ lunchtime queues, and approximately 30,000 packets that get sold every month. But is it a stretch to declare Ilham the best nasi kukus joint in town?

It’s my luck that when I visit this time, Ilham is having a bad day. The common ethos I’m used to at Ilham is: Rice is individually steamed on order (can you really have nasi kukus any other way?) and ayam goreng rempah is freshly strained off the sizzling oil. But this time, I suspect they had a large catering order cancelled because I’m chucked a pre-packed brown packet exposing a cold chicken leg, bound with a rubber band.

Expectedly, the rice is lumpy and the chicken is soggy. But in my eyes, Ilham hasn’t sinned yet. I devotedly wait for the pre-packaged rice to run out, just about when the cook fires up the wok for a fresh batch of chicken. After an extra 20 minutes in line, the poultry shines – the crispy, not-too-thick skin is fragrant with spice and the flesh is moist and balmy. The rice also improves when prepared on order, but doesn’t come close to the feathery-yet-firm texture achieved by its greatest competitor, Nasi Kukus Farni.

The variable in a study of most nasi kukus in KL is the side of kuah kari – and Ilham pulls off a mean version. Thick and sweet, it’s made from a blend of three curries: fish curry, a mild Kelantanese gulai darat and kerutuk daging (an eastern kuah made of asam gelugor, coconut meat, gula Melaka and a load of spices). Curry mixed into rice, threads of warm chicken, a side of ripe pineapple and a crushing of keropok ikan – it’s all as comforting as the fact that nasi kukus is a thing that exists.

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  • Restaurants
  • Thai

Phraya Thai is the brainchild of Muhammad Shazwan (Wan) Bin Muhamad Shahril Tan’s family. Wan shares, “The concept here is more historical as we wanted to reflect the Chao Phraya river which flows through Bangkok.” The décor is simple with wooden tables and metal chairs. Adorning the walls are two large maps of Thailand. A few black and white pictures of the Chao Phraya River can be seen and there is even one of the late Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej clad in a pa kao ma, eating a traditional Thai dish.

Wan’s family has travelled to Bangkok to come up with their menu. He says that they do quite a bit of research and development with the chefs to see what sort of dishes they can put up. There are many delectable dishes that one can sample here, including the infamous pineapple fried rice that is served in a pineapple (RM12.90), Thai-style omelette (RM6.90), tom yum goong with prawns (RM9.90), Thai laksa with green curry chicken (RM12.90) and many more.

Ara Vietnamese Noodles
  • Restaurants
  • Vietnamese
  • Damansara
  • price 1 of 4

If there was ever a gap in the coverage of Vietnamese food in the city, it has been duly filled by Ara Vietnamese Noodles. Once you discover this little nugget of a restaurant in the outlands of Damansara Jaya, just you wait till it becomes your regular go-to for a quick weeknight nip.

The first time I visit, I lunch alone on phở, the broths of all broths. It’s the one dish held by exceptionally high standards in Hanoi, the one dish that the reputation of Vietnam’s cuisine so strongly depends on. Bourdain, for a bowl of this ‘panorama of mysterious meats’, has said that he would ‘jerk a rusty butter knife across his best friend’s throat’.

Bourdain may have a point there. The broth is immediately calming and mildly sweet, with the grassy notes of Thai basil, or as it’s more aptly named in some markets, holy basil. The beef – scattered across the top in tissue-thin slices – are generous in portion and just the right amount of texture against the slippery noodles. As I hit the bottom of the bowl, my head is shrouded in steam, my pores are unclogged, and my nose sniffly. If these are the symptoms of having just had a good bowl of noodles, I’ve been positively diagnosed.

On my next trip, the braised pork with coconut water makes a good impression. It’s a bowl of herbal and floral flavours with the addition of a marinated egg; there’s not enough broth to go around the rice, so I’d suggest asking for a little extra sauce. With that, I also order the Vietnamese pancake, dyed with turmeric to a majestic golden. The thin, light pancake is filled with bean sprouts, prawn, pork and chilli, great as a side.

On the pork skewers, the meat is greased in a sweet marinade and screams for a cold beer on the side. The pork sausage too is great but I imagine it to taste even better if swaddled by a crisp lettuce leaf. All the oily meats call for something sweet, and what better than a crème caramel – a quivering pudding on a plastic saucer, doused in caramel. It’s not satiny smooth as the best kind in Ipoh, but I appreciate that it’s not too eggy, or not too sweet. I finish it. Now the only polite thing left to do is drive home to take a long, long nap.

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  • Restaurants
  • Petaling Jaya

It’s a battle of the nasi lemak at the 24- hour Medan Selera 223 (also known as Medan Selera 222), a hotspot among PJ residents seeking late-night eats. There are two nasi lemak stalls you can choose from: Suri and Yati. The much raved-about nasi lemak from Suri boasts fluffy rice with less spicy sambal but if you want to kick things up a notch, try Yati’s version, which uses sambal pedas that packs a punch.

  • Restaurants
  • Chinese
  • Subang
  • price 1 of 4

There’s nothing fancy about Uncle Soon’s fried rice; it’s simply done well, comes in generous portions and is affordable – making it a hit among thrifty college students in Subang Jaya. Located inside Restoran Foh Foh in SS15, a husband-and-wife team mans the single-wok stall here dishing up plates of Cantonese fried rice. These are your options – small, big or extra big; topped with prawns (from RM7), char siew from (RM7.50) or both (from RM9.50) to have with or without a sunny side up egg. Despite cooking each order individually, there isn’t a long waiting time; and you still get flavourful fried rice that has the all-important wok hei. The dish comes with a side of punchy sambal if you want some heat with your rice.

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  • Restaurants
  • Chinese
  • Solaris Dutamas

GO Noodle House’s house-made stock uses fresh fish, herbs and cooking wine, which results in a clear and clean-tasting soup that’s devoid of any fishiness. There’s also a fragrant coriander undertone, making it the perfect base to add on your favourite ingredients. Choices include fish paste, pork belly slices, grouper head and belly, clams, prawns and more. For a start, try their signature Fu Zhou fish ball noodle soup and add on a serving of bursting meatballs (RM3.80) that are filled with minced pork and sesame oil – trust us, it’s good.

  • Restaurants
  • Thai
  • SEA Park

Classic Thai street food done right: At Boran Thai Food, mains (Thai basil pork rice, noodle soup, garlic pork on rice and more) are all priced comfortably from RM7.90 for a’la carte dishes. At RM10.90, there are set meals which include rice, a drink and a dessert. Seats fill up quickly come lunch and dinner, so get there early.

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ChimiChurri
  • Restaurants
  • Petaling Jaya

At ChimiChurri you can get a salad bowl with chicken breast for RM16.90; you can also turn it into a rice bowl, a tortilla wrap or a sandwich at no extra cost. Your choices of protein are grilled chicken breast, Cajun chicken thigh or the dory fish fillet. But if you’re going full vegetarian, it’s only RM13.90. The selection of vegetables and hot add-ons are also plentiful – from your basic tomatoes and peppers to cauliflower rice, couscous and sweet potato mash. For sauces, the options are more localised. Think sambal, rendang and peanut sauce, alongside apple salsa, sweet sesame and the namesake chimichurri sauce.

  • Restaurants
  • Chinese
  • Damansara

Located in Damansara Jaya, Boon Signature Roast Pork has interiors that are as simple as they come – exposed concrete walls and floor and wood-topped tables; a traditional Chinese wooden plaque at the back of the restaurant completes the eatery’s nostalgic ambience. The restaurant is capable of sitting only a handful of customers so expect large crowds come lunchtime and weekends.

A must-have here is the siew yok rice – steamed Japanese pearl rice topped with tender siew yok that’s marinated with five-spice powder and other ingredients and roasted in a charcoal-fed Apollo oven. Co-owner Boon Cheam is the mastermind behind the siew yok – think flavourful slabs of melt-in-your-mouth pork that’s only made better with a crackly skin; it’s a recipe that Boon has perfected over many attempts. Flavour-wise, five-spice powder rub greatly diminishes any traces of porky odour, so what you get is siew yok that’s aromatic with just the right level of saltiness.

For something different, you can have your rice with char siew and roasted chicken, both of which are also well-executed. If you fancy noodles instead, grab a plate of dry wonton noodles and top it with any (or all) of the three proteins; but be warned, the dish is extremely addictive (we went for seconds and considered getting a third portion to share!). If you don’t mind splurging, a Berkshire kurobuta version of the siew yok is also available but during weekends only, so come early if you want a piece.

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  • Restaurants
  • Malaysian
  • Damansara

Chef Heng Kit, formerly of Kitchen Table, heads the open kitchen at neighbourhood restaurant Li, where updated Malaysian fare comes in the form of pork toast (think roti babi made with chilli mayo, house-made sourdough, and lots of cilantro), rice bowls (with a ginger scallion sauce that’s reminiscent of the sauce in chicken rice), a pan mee-like version of pasta with slow-cooked pork, mushroom congee, and more. For dessert, order the coconut panna cotta, with pandan jelly and gula Melaka for a familiarly sweet finish. With lots of white walls punctuated by old wooden chairs, the space evokes a minimalist kopitiam vibe.

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