Kota Kinabalu: sampling the menus of a Malaysian metropolis

Food Travel

Image credit: Andrew Foo

After a recent fieldtrip, I and a group of friends spent a few days resting in the city of Kota Kinabalu, in Malaysian Borneo. It’s one hell of a place. Firstly, a number of bars provide all the liquid refreshment you may require. Secondly, the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park provides a range of diverse ecosystems as well as excellent diving. And finally, there are a range of great restaurants, some of which I’ll detail below.

Returning from the rainforest, many of us were desperate to break out from the routine of chicken and rice every day, with Italian being the thing that was going to hit the spot. We first descended on the quick delights of Pizza Hut, but that was not enough to satisfy our Mediterranean cravings. In the evening we moved on to Little Italy, a restaurant down in the centre of town. Already full of pizza, many of us settled on the pasta, taking advantage of the ability to pick your own pasta and sauce combo. I went for the combination of chill tagliatelle with meatballs. The tagliatelle was heavy and starchy, but it made a welcome change from the meals of the previous couple of weeks. The spicing was on point, with a sauce that balanced the spice of Asian cuisine with the tomato based sensibilities of the Italians. All in all, a heady trip down memory lane that filled a particular spot.

The power of the chilli was counterbalanced by the sweet chocolate, while the small portion size was perfectly countered by the richness of the sauce…

As many of our friends departed for cooler climes, we stuck around for the diving. In the evening, we explored the restaurants of KK further, finding Chilli Vanilla, described by Google as a Hungarian restaurant. Intrigued by this little piece of Hungary so far from home, we decided to drop in. When looking at the menu, I was drawn to the Chilli Chocolate Braised Beef on the menu. I have something of a hit and miss relationship with chilli chocolate, but the temptation was just too strong. Receiving a small bowl of the braised beef along with chips, I was initially worried that I’d need to go back for seconds. In the end, the balance was just right. The power of the chilli was counterbalanced by the sweet chocolate, while the small portion size was perfectly countered by the richness of the sauce. It was like someone walking multiple tightropes at the same time, and all while keeping perfectly composed. If you’re looking for food in Kota Kinabalu, Chilli Vanilla has to be top of your list.

When my friend’s birthday rolled around, then the bar was the only place to be. Of course, this needed to be balanced with good food, a quiz, and an unexpected encounter with our lecturers. El Centro was the only choice. A small Mexican bar/restaurant, we occupied one of the back tables while we progressed through a number of courses, which for me included crispy tacos and a banana split. Bar food is defined by its edibility and ability to counterbalance increasing levels of alcohol throughout the evening, and after winning a cocktail pitcher in the quiz, we needed that more than ever. A good banana split fulfils all these requirements, and one making use of 3 ice creams, 4 sauces, and a sprinkling of nuts on top deserves attention. Having drunk significant quantities of alcohol, having beaten our lecturers in a quiz, and just generally having a great time, El Centro is worth a trip just for the atmosphere alone. The fact that the food was delicious anyway was beside the point.

So if you find yourself over in Kota Kinabalu, and the pangs of hunger come upon you, you’re not going to regret paying a visit to one of the city’s many eateries. We only had time for a small subset of the city’s restaurants, so why not push the boat out and try something new?