If you were to find yourself walking at night through the streets of Bali or Kota Kinabalu, you would almost certainly smell food. Sometimes the smell is coming from an individual stall specializing in murtabak or roti or some distinct noodle dish, but it's likely the smell is emanating from a central location where hundreds of stalls congregate. You'll probably smell the food before you see it. You may need to walk through throngs of people selling every item imaginable: used televisions, poorly made handbags, NFL jerseys, handcrafted jewelry, fake jewelry, authentic North Face jackets.
Eventually you'll reach your destination, where the smoke and dust are so thick that you'll need to pause to breathe. Once your eyesight adjusts, you will see roasted ducks, skewers of freshly grilled fish and squid, hanging chickens, steaming bowls of soup and batches of tossed egg noodles, most of it offered for pennies.
The food market concept is ingrained in Southeast Asian culture. On the island of Borneo, the markets are quickly assembled on cracked sidewalks, filled with people and dogs and delicious food. In wealthy Singapore, the markets are rigidly organized, relatively clean and often placed in shopping malls. The food is still delicious.
It's no surprise that something like an Asian food market has been attempted in Los Angeles. That was presumably the idea behind the 626 Night Market, which, with its corporate sponsors and long lines, looks exactly like what you would expect a night market in L.A. to look like. But the true food markets in L.A., at least in spirit, are where local immigrants congregate: the backyards of Burmese in Monterey Park, a parking lot in Duarte where Indonesians gather every Saturday, a small food court in a strip mall in West Covina.
That strip mall is called Hong Kong Plaza, and its food court, located adjacent to an Asian grocery store, has been recently renovated. Its floors are polished now, and there are little sleek wooden poles around the eating area that give it a modern touch. Looking around at the vendors - a Filipino empanada spot, a Malaysian eatery, a couple Indonesian noodle shops - you may feel like you're in a Singapore shopping mall.
The landscape of the food court has changed, too. There used to be an excellent Malaysian satay spot, where Josephine's empanadas are sold now. There will be a new vendor, Borneo Kitchen, opening in the next couple months. The other three - Bethania Depot, Janty Noodle and Bakmi Parahyangan - have been there for years, serving what is essentially Indonesian and Malaysian comfort food.
There's not much complexity to the food here. Much of Indonesian and Malaysian food relies on the freshness of its ingredients. That's generally enough in Indonesia; ayam penyet, a simple fried chicken garnished with chili sambal, tastes very good when the chicken's head is chopped off a few minutes before the frying. We can assume that's not the case at Hong Kong Plaza, and the food suffers a bit for it, but that's forgivable when there are only a few dozen places on the West Coast that serve ayam penyet in the first place.
It's possible to introduce yourself to most of the staples of Malaysian cuisine at Bethania Depot, the food court's most ambitious stall, though roti was recently removed from the menu for inexplicable reasons. They do have ayam penyet. There are plates - or, more accurately, styrofoam containers - of common breakfast foods mee goreng and nasi goreng, the former served with fried noodles (mee), the latter with fried rice (nasi). There's gado-gado ("mix-mix"), a sort of salad of pounded rice cakes and boiled egg slathered with a peanut sauce, served at Bethania and the other stalls.
You can also find laksa here, the essential curry noodle soup that's sold on sidewalks across the Malay peninsula and much of the rest Southeast Asia. A well-executed bowl of laksa is one of the best street dishes in the world, a deeply flavorful curry laced with chili oil, sambal and lime, garnished with Vietnamese coriander and served with a bundle of vermicelli and a few choice pieces of shrimp, chicken and tofu.
The soup's quality varies at Bethania: Some days the broth is nearly perfect, reminiscent of Singapore's best versions, and some days it's far too thin, lacking the aggressive punch of flavor that makes laksa as marvelous as it is. (If it is one of those bad days, you can find a decent laksa in this same strip mall by walking out of the food court, looking to the left and entering Penang Restaurant, which has some good Malaysian cooking of its own.)
At Janty Noodle and Bakmi Parahyangan, the story is basically the same: Indonesian noodles, most of them Chinese-inspired from the centuries of interaction between the two countries. There are fried noodles, rice noodles, vegetarian noodles, egg noodles, spicy noodles and dishes that use multiple noodles at the same time. Most of the people who line up at Janty go straight for the mie ayam jamur, literally "noodles chicken mushroom," and it's hard to fault them; the plate of ground chicken scattered over freshly tossed egg noodles is one of those dishes that's very easy to eat, especially when garnished with fried onions and a touch of sambal.
At Bakmi, the beef rendang noodle is nice if you like the texture of spiced jerky, but pempek palembang is the more intriguing dish. Served in Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra, pempek is a kind of fried fishcake formed with tapioca and egg, accompanied by noodles bathed in impossibly sweet tamarind and sour vinegar. If you can adjust to the onslaught of sweetness, the chewy pempek are actually refreshing.
Once you've eaten your way through Malaysia and Indonesia, you can end your food court tour with a bibingka, a Filipino baked sweet rice cake, at Josephine's stall, and, if you can imagine yourself being hungry in the future, pick up a few empanadas for the road.
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You can also just come back; these food stalls don't get taken down.
Note: To enter the food court from the parking lot, go straight for the large grocery store in the center of the plaza. Once inside, walk all the way to the left.