My journey began with a layover of seven hours and 55 minutes in Kuala Lumpur. As the plane emptied out at the airport gate, I found myself with hunger pangs and plenty of time to kill. I thought, Why not check out Restoran Sek Yuen? A blog called Foodiehub recently had the gall to deem it the world's greatest Chinese restaurant. Was such a place even possible? Sek Yuen was only a few miles away. It seemed like a worthwhile investigation.
An hour passed in the imigresen line before I got my passport stamped, but it was only for a meal. I took a train from the airport into the city. Lines of palm and Malaysian verdure made a green wall outside the window.
With every mile closer to Sek Yuen and farther from the airport, my anxiety that I might miss my flight swelled. I became antsy. There were many question marks in this unplanned journey, for which I was unassisted by smartphone or basic directions. I saw nightmare scenarios. Once you leave the terminal, anything can happen.
At Bandar Tasik Selatan—my stop, according to an in-the-know co-passenger—I found a taxi to take me to Restoran Sek Yuen. I had five and a half hours before my flight. "To Pudu station, please," I said.
"Pudu!" echoed the driver, named Mizan. "Why go to Pudu?"
"There's supposed to be a Chinese restaurant near there," I said. "It's famous."
Mizan had never heard of it. "Muslims cannot eat Chinese food. This one not halal." He cracked open a can of watermelon juice. Eating and drinking is not permitted in the daytime during the fasting month. In Malaysia, Muslims caught doing either risk a steep fine or up to six months in prison.
"Happy Ramadan," I quipped and Mizan laughed. He was a Muslim, but not a pious one.
We came over a hill and the city unfolded through the window, a blue sky brushed with snowy clouds and the towering Petronas Towers, the jewels of Kuala Lumpur, spotlit in the sunshine, fenced in by green mountains. I was relieved there was no traffic. We zipped down the highway at a quick pace. Mizan sipped his forbidden juice and I checked my watch. It felt like we were both living dangerously.
We got to Pudu and I saw nothing. "You talk to the Chinese," suggested Mizan. "They know." I rolled down the window and asked two passersby but they were clueless. Mizan drove us down the road, then back again. Precious time melted away.
He dropped me off in China Town, which I figured was as good a place as any to search for the world's greatest Chinese restaurant. I queried an old man sitting outside a bird shop. He knew nothing, but as I walked away I heard a small voice. "I know," it said.
A frail man dressed in a torn-up shirt with frayed shorts on a thin, suntanned frame had been strolling alongside me. Where had he come from?
"Sek Yuen?" I said.
The man pointed down another street. "There are three restaurants that way," he said. "They are popular with tourists. It is probably there."
I thanked him and went on my way, making sure to read the sign on every storefront as I passed. ("Restoran Sek Yang" nearly gave me a heart attack.)
Then, I heard my name. "Brent?"
Standing there on the sidewalk were two acquaintances from my home base of Phnom Penh: Vanntin "Tin" Hoeurn, a heavily tattooed Cambodian screamo singer, and Conrad Keely, an American singer-songwriter behind the Austin indie band …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. What were the chances of running into them here? I suddenly felt glad I had left the terminal. I explained my mission and they agreed to tag along.
We located the restaurant using Conrad's phone. It was a half-hour walk, so we hailed a taxi and squeezed in. The driver was an old Chinese man. "Sek Yuen?" I said. He'd never heard of it. That seemed a bad sign. Conrad directed him from his phone. The cabbie revealed that he was in fact familiar with Sek Yuen. "Ahh, suke ying," he said joyfully, drawing out the Cantonese tones. "That's a very old restaurant—60, 70 years old."
The cabbie dropped us off ("Suke ying!") and we walked triumphantly across a busy road. The restaurant seemed ancient from the outside, a peeling box from another time with Chinese characters and Malay letters atop the entrance. A group of old Chinese men was coming out—not from a door but an opening, a hole in the wall.
Inside, it was 1945, or sometime around there. The place was wide with long grated windows, high walls, like a small warehouse, and dinky tables and chairs throughout, some occupied by Chinese families but most of them empty at this late lunch hour. A team of white-shirted wait staff, many of them seniors, manned the place. Vintage photographs hung on the wall next to dingy fans. Every inch of it was battered, rusting or peeling.
A happy waitress came and took our order, which was easy to make because there were no menus. Some tea came and the food not long after: stir-fried vegetables, sweet and sour chicken, and roasted duck, which was said to be the shining star of Sek Yuen. We dug in with our chopsticks.
Now I will cut to the chase: The veggies and chicken were good, even better than average, but not life-changing. The skin of the chicken was crisped in near-perfect proportion to the moistness of its meat, a crunchy dive into softness. The sauce which it was bathed in was tastefully sour and blessedly devoid of any sugary overkill. Touché. The stir-fried veggies get a good rating only because they were of little notice at all. They wouldn't make you grimace but you wouldn't bang the table either.
The duck, however, was very, very fine. Its meat, plush beneath a skin crisped by an ancient wood oven, was impossibly juicy. Believe the hype. The tangy sauce provided alongside it proved superfluous. The bird was best enjoyed plain.
We finished with full stomachs and happy tongues. Conrad and Tin went outside to smoke cigarettes. The old men were gone. It was not the best Chinese restaurant in the world, but its duck was something close to it. Back at the airport, I had three hours to kill. The way back always seems shorter.
What had I learned from this rash culinary outing? One: that the best Chinese restaurant in the world is probably not in Kuala Lumpur, but that there is, nonetheless, some world-class Chinese food there. (Not a revelation, I know, but such is reality.) And two, an important truth. Food, in relation to historic sites, glitzy markets, architectural wonders, or cultural performances, always makes for the best guiding light in travel. It is both a teacher and a reward. In one bite are a hundred guidebooks. And what is the use of traversing from A to B if there is nothing good to eat at the endpoint? In most cases—and your stomach would agree with me here—it would be big waste of time.