Kota Kinabalu has a wide variety of dining options, and certainly the best selection in Sabah. Most of the food found around town is fairly decent, though much of it is the standard Chinese or Muslim selections found everywhere in Sabah. However, there are some standout options I’ve discovered over time, and I’ll continue to update this list of dining recommendations in KK as necessary.
Many of the Western restaurants that feature prominently on TripAdvisor and in Lonely Planet are worth avoiding. Even when homesickness has you craving some comforts of home, no comfort food is often better than bad comfort food. After a few initial bad experiences with what has been passed off as American, Mexican, Italian, and especially cocktails, at some of these places, I’ve mostly avoided them unless. There are some exceptions, as noted below.
Lido Square Food Center
Finally, I’ve been introduced to a good local hawker court. The night markets on the waterfront have just never felt that authentic or good, more geared for tourists. Lido Square is the real deal. There are dozens of stalls, all offering different specialties. For me, this is one of the very best places to really dig into local food. Traditional Sabahan dishes can be found, including hinava (a raw fish dish like ceviche). Malaysian standards are covered, including rendang, curries, laksa, bak kut teh, and satay. Local greens and plenty of seafood are in abundance as well – do not pass up sambal stingray. A big meaty slab of stingray (or skate) wing is slathered in sambal and grilled. Unlike much of the fish I’ve seen around, this was cooked to order and was incredibly tender, juicy and flavorful.
After discovering Lido Square, I’m now of the opinion that this should be your first dining destination. It gives you an exposure to plenty of local dishes, as well as a huge variety of Malaysian and Chinese options and everything we had here was excellent.
Another hawker food court, though this one is much more upscale. The big, covered dining pavilion and permanent food counters have more of a modern mall design feel to them, with lighting and a unified design. The food on offer here covers a fairly large range – noodles, rice, seafood, curries, traditional Sabahan dishes, Chinese, Malay, Middle Eastern, Korean, and a bakery. The Sabahan dishes were quite good – hinava, Sabah veggie stir fried with scrambled egg, and tuhau (the stalk of a plant, somewhat similar in appearance to bamboo, that tastes like cilantro and is mixed with vinegar and chili as a condiment.)
Salut Seafood Restaurant
Salut Seafood Restaurant isn’t exactly in KK, but it’s close enough and well worth the trip if you have a car or want to spring for a taxi. Salut is about 20 minutes north of town, locate between the Nexus and Shangri-La Rasa Ria resorts. The restaurant is surrounded by the ponds of the shrimp farm on which it is situated, and looks out over a lagoon to the sea.
When you enter the sprawling open-air pavilion, you first encounter a bank of bubbling tanks, displaying the live seafood available. You order here before sitting, and you can pick out which of the many types of clams, shrimp, lobsters and other shellfish you’d like, as well as fish and squid. There’s also a display of fresh vegetables to choose from, and with both the seafood and vegetables, you specify how you would like them prepared. They have a list of standard options and will make suggestions, but you can also go off-menu to tell them what you’d like, though within reason. I wouldn’t ask for Lobster Thermidor, but if you’d like ginger, garlic and chili on your clams instead of the default, they’ll be happy to make it happen.
We had clams with ginger (excellent and super cheap), a whole steamed grouper with ginger and garlic (meltingly tender and juicy), shrimp with black pepper (lots of fresh cracked black pepper, though no sauce), shrimp with garlic (covered in crispy-fried minced garlic), kang kong with garlic (lots of whole cloves roasted and sweet), baby kailan with chili and garlic (also mushrooms, carrots and plenty of MSG), and fried rice. All of the seafood was cooked perfectly and super flavorful; this is in the running for best seafood I’ve had in Borneo. The fried rice without a doubt comes out on top as the best I can remember having. It had big, peeled shrimp and chunks of octopus in it, both surprisingly tender. The flavor was good, and served as a nice backdrop to the rest of the dishes, but it was worth the 12RM for the chunks of seafood in it alone.
Another delight here were the fresh juices. I had a mix of apple, pineapple and mango, which was excellent. Others opted for the straight pineapple juice, which was incredibly sweet (without sugar added) and served in the pineapple; later we realized that they apparently just shove an immersion blender into the pineapple, liquefying it within it’s own skin, which is a pretty awesome technique.
This place is huge, though was mostly empty when we went there. Walking past the kitchen, I was quite impressed by their ticket rail system. I’ve worked a kitchen with a clothes pin ticket rail, and let me tell you, they are a pain in the ass to manage. But the sheer scale of this was incredible, and I’d love to watch them crushing it during a crazy-busy dinner service.
A more upscale Chinese restaurant near Suria Sabah, I was excited to see that they had some Szechuan dishes, as well as hand-pulled noodles. They have a range of dumplings and wontons, many noodle dishes, a healthy selection of offal and terrines (calve’s foot, beef tendon, pig organs, etc), and some more standard rice options. I tried out their version of mapo tofu; it was a huge serving of soft, jiggly tofu, rich ground pork, with a decent heat level, though without the numbing Szechuan peppercorns unfortunately. Still, it was quite good. Also of note are their excellent juices – some of the best we’ve found anywhere, with just straight fruit juice without the adulteration of water or sugar. You can’t go wrong with the watermelon and cucumber juices.
This banana leaf curry shop, off the main roundabout at Kampong Air and tucked up against the hill on the eastern side of downtown KK is my favorite curry restaurant here. If you aren’t familiar with the banana leaf curry style, it involves a banana leaf placed on the table as your plate, and then the servers come around and give you a pile of rice, small scoops of various vegetable condiments, a side dish of your chosen curry, a few papadums, a small cup of soup, and then they ladle a curry sauce or daal (or both) over the rice. I’ve always gone with the mutton curry, which has never disappointed and is more complexly flavored than the standard curry found around Sabah. Most restaurants seem to use a generic curry powder mix, but clearly they are making their own here.
Another key reason to go to Sri Latha is that they have the best roti canai’s in KK and probably all of Sabah. It’s always super hot, crispy, flaky and just a touch chewy in the center, and has a bit more flavor to it than most. I’ve read that they use ghee in it, which could be the key factor, as margarine (or perhaps even palm oil) is the standard here. The curry sauce for dipping is also a notch about the rest. As above, it is clearly their special mix, and has a touch of sourness that is nice. If you’re looking for the best roti, Sri Latha is a must.
Kedai Makan Islamic Restoran
This mamak shop in the basement of Centre Point shopping mall is also recommended as a contender for best roti canai in KK. I’ve read that the owners are from Malabar, which is where the roti originated from, and as such theirs is a more authentic style, using coconut oil as the fat. It was super crispy and flaky, but I found the roti at Sri Latha to have a bit more flavor as well as better curry sauce.
In addition to the roti, they have a menu of nasi and mee goreng, as well as the mamak buffet, which is a large assortment of various curries and other Muslim dishes. I didn’t find the buffet options to be exceptional, but they were fine.
Kung Fu La Mian
For an All-Star lunch in Centre Point, start out with the roti at Kedai Makan Islamic Restoran above, but then head around the corner in the food court for your main course here. We were lucky enough to stumble across this place our first day in KK, and it doesn’t seem to get any love in Kota Kinabalu food guides, which is a shame. This little stall offers Muslim Chinese fare, and most notably has hand-pulled noodles. If you haven’t tried these before, add them to your list.
They offer four or five varieties of noodles, with dozens of options for their preparation – fried, soup, meat and veg options, etc. Pick your noodle and your preparation, then the chef grabs a lump of dough, and stretches it by hand, forming your noodles in a matter of seconds. By inserting his fingers into the dough and stretching, doubling them back, stretching more and repeating, he pulls the dough into the different shapes of noodle. The noodles go into a vat of broth to quickly cook, then are either finished by him for soups, or sent to the back kitchen for stir fries.
Being a Muslim Chinese place, they feature lamb. The lamb soup with noodles and vegetables was excellent, with a rich, flavorful lamb broth that wasn’t too gamey or heavy, plenty of slabs of meltingly soft lamb and a generous amount of greens. Also of note is the chili sauce on the tables – a toasted Chinese-style chili oil that is hard to find around Borneo.
Old Village Seafood Restaurant at Seri Selera
Tourists get sucked into the night markets or waterfront restaurants for seafood, and this is usually a mistake. For fantastic seafood, a few blocks inland from the waterfront, there is a large seafood court called Seri Selera, which houses six or so different seafood restaurants and a few smaller stalls offering dumplings and such.
All of the restaurants seem to have very similar offerings, with tanks full of live seafood and many different preparations of each item. Follow the local crowds for the best pick of the group. In my experience, I wasn’t at all happy with Sri Mutiara at the back left of the court, but had one of my best meals in Sabah at Old Village Seafood Restaurant at the very front on the right side.
You can order off-menu from any of the places if you want a different preparation than is listed – for example, they might only list Black Pepper Prawns, but you can get anything else prepared this style as well. We had Black Pepper Prawns, Clams with Ginger and Spring Onion, and Baby Kailan with Garlic and Chili. They were all fantastic, and it is going to be hard to get something else next time, though there are so many interesting sea creatures to try: horseshoe crabs (what do you eat off those?), geoduck clams, lots of varieties of crabs, lobsters and prawns, and plenty of fish. Oh, and keep an eye out for the Stone Fish; them are some ugly-ass fish.
Chilli Vanilla is probably the best European restaurant in Kota Kinabalu, outside of any resort restaurants, which I tend to avoid. The Hungarian owner brings some traditional Hungarian dishes into the mix, including goulash, as well as a variety of very well-executed European options. Their beef braised in chili and chocolate was excellent – rich, hearty, and with just the right subtle touches of heat and sweetness.
They offer a number of salads, though I haven’t ventured beyond the Aphrodite. Featuring smoked duck, dried cranberries and cherries, and feta cheese, along with beautiful baby greens, it also hits a great balance between fresh bright vegetables, sweet dried fruit, tangy cheese, and the smoky richness of the duck.
A number of interesting pastas, burgers (beef, veg and lamb), lamb tagine, fish and chicken specials, and more round out the menu. They have some very good unsweetened juices – the beet, carrot and orange is great, as well as a cucumber, lime and mint. Well-priced wine and beer are on offer, as well as some of the most interesting, and the best-executed, cocktails I’ve come across in KK.
Kedai Kopi Fatt Kee
This Chinese place uptown next to Ang’s Hotel is a perennial favorite and is one of the few picks that Lonely Planet gets right. It’s always packed, though a wait for a table isn’t usually too long as they turn them quickly. They are justifiably known for their chicken wings, which are fried and tossed with oyster sauce and sesame, and are far more delicious than that sounds. They are a touch sweet, a touch spicy, and all good.
Fatt Kee’s other signature dish is their Sabah veggie, stir-fried with belacan. Unfortunately I’ve never been able to try it, as they have sold out of it before I’ve arrived every time. I can vouch for their kang kong with garlic. This is one of the few places in Sabah at which I’ve noticed the wok hei, or “breath of the wok,” that distinctive subtle char and smoky taste, the essence of the wok, that is imparted in proper wok stir frying.
This corner noodle shop is always packed with locals slurping up Tom Yam noodle soup, and this seems to be the top pick in town for it. Tom Yam here is creamier and milder than the Thai version, its edges rounded out with coconut milk. This rich, filling bowl is filled with noodles and bean sprouts, three fresh prawns, fried tofu, a sprinkling of cilantro, and nearly overflowing with the broth. They also do a good laksa, stir-fried pork, and are supposed to be a good place for Tuaran Mee, a local noodle dish with roast pork.
Yee Fung Restaurant
This place is the go-to spot for locals looking for laksa. It’s packed at most hours, and rightfully so. They offer a small and large bowl, and they crank them out fast. The broth is thick with coconut milk and curry, and has a generous amount of shredded chicken in addition to the noodles, fried tofu, shredded omelet, bean sprouts, prawns and cilantro. Kalamansi limes and sambal allow you to doctor it up if you want more heat or acid. The drink of choice here is the Ice Lemon Kitchai, found on nearly every table. It’s a salty-sweet lemon juice with preserved plums, which I found to be a bit too salty and sweet.
I’m not going to claim this is actually one of KK’s best restaurants, but it does have a place in my heart. It was one of my first meals in KK and it is always my fallback place. Our decent-but-cheap hotel of choice was the Traveler Hotel for a long time (now replaced by the incrementally nicer and incrementally more expensive (~$2) De Galleria), and Wong Kok was next door. It is right in the middle of Kampong Air, and thus convenient for most places I’m going to or coming from. And it’s open 24 hours.
On top of all of the convenience, it’s always had solid, though unexceptional food. Their laksa is decent. Their stir fries decent. The buffet options are interesting, good, and cheap. And they have tons of pork, which is always a plus.
In fact, I chose Wong Kok for my Thanksgiving dinner last year, which I suppose needs a bit of explanation. We had hosted a large Thanksgiving celebration at our house the previous weekend, and we thought everyone else we knew would still be in town for Thanksgiving and we’d all be going out for dinner. Instead, everyone left town to fly away for the holidays, and we weren’t leaving until the following day. Jenny was sick and not hungry, so I ventured out myself for this important dinner of thanks and remembrance.
Wong Kok was close and easy and never failed me. I perused the steam table buffet and selected Pork with Bitter Melon, Pork with Black Fungus, and Sabah Veggies. I selected a mystery ice tea from the fridge, hoping that I was getting this sweet herbal Chinese ice tea I’ve liked but haven’t gotten the name of. The food was good, and when I took a big swig of my tea, discovered that it was actually black fungus (wood ear) tea. An authentic Pilgrims and Indians or Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving? Perhaps not, but I’ll probably remember it for a lot longer than some dried out roast turkey and stuffing.
This is one of only a few solid Western restaurants, and we were quite excited to find a good Mexican option here. They’ve got a variety of tacos, burritos and entrees. Their guacamole is good, as are their salsas, though the servings are rather small on these. The tortilla chips are fried fresh, on the thin side, and super crispy. Their el fuego burrito is fucking spicy. Not even really fun spicy, just shoving a pile of habaneros in your face until you are dripping tears and snot. The fish and shrimp tacos were really good. The only real disappointment here is that they don’t serve pork; a proper carnitas or chorizo taco would be a godsend.
The margaritas are quite good, the best we’ve found in KK (which isn’t saying much, based on what others pass off). They also have a number of other cocktails we haven’t tried, and I was really excited to see they have a cocktail with lihing (the local rice wine). I’ve been desperate to see someone doing something interesting with lihing. Why doesn’t anyone in Sabah explore cocktails with their local liquor? It makes me sad.
Another item of note – the service at Cabo is really good. Their servers are knowledgeable and on the ball. Furthermore, they are excited and energetic and seem to enjoy working there. Clearly the management has put a lot of effort into their training, and they’ve found some really solid employees. Having been in the position of trying to teach and instill this in a place where it is far from the norm, I can understand how hard that can be, and my hat is off to them.
My other pick for Western food, and the only Italian place I have found that I think is worth going to. It’s located on the third floor of the Suria Sabah shopping mall, which is a bit strange, but the outdoor balcony has a nice ocean view. The owner is Italian, and has taught his kitchen to put out quite solid traditional Italian dishes. All of the pastas I’ve tried have been quite good, and their wine is a good deal. Recently I tried their polenta with braised beef special which was excellent – a huge portion of cheesey, creamy polenta, and lots of fall-apart tender, rich braised beef.
The night market on the southern end of the waterfront is very hit-or-miss. They’ve got some really nice looking seafood, but the prices are a bit steep, as they cater primarily to tourists. The other thing that is a huge red-flag for me, is that almost all of the seafood is pre-cooked. They grill it in the afternoon, have it sitting out all evening, and they slap it back on the grill when you order it. This presents two very serious problems. One, you have seafood sitting out at room temperature for hours. Great for bacteria growth and for spending the following day chained to the toilet, not great for taste or freshness. And perhaps even more disturbing, your seafood is going to be terribly overcooked and dried out. I’ve never actually gotten any seafood here, and would urge everyone not to.
Other than the grilled seafood, there are lots of stands here that offer noodle and rice dishes, fried stuff, soups, drinks, etc. These tend to be a good value and most are cooked to order, so are safe and potentially delicious. There’s another night market on the northern end of the waterfront, though I haven’t tried it yet and am not sure how it compares.