It certainly pays to book in advance when it comes to Sri Pinang. Having no success calling through to make a booking one Sunday, Lynn and I took a chance and turned up, only to meet the cruel, metallic face of Sri Pinang’s closed roller door. We took no such chance the second time around and neither should you when it comes to finding a table at Sri Pinang. Any night of the week (except Sundays, the only day they’re closed) Sri Pinang’s clean and modest dining room is full, and with good reason.
Over the years I’ve visited Sri Pinang a number of times, which has established itself as a place of authentic affordability, with its one-dollar corkage fee famous amongst those who enjoy a wine or a beer with their dinner. Having recently returned from a trip to Malaysia, my and my aunt Chai Sha’s taste buds were primed with the taste of the old country, ready to scrutinise every rendang and sambal dish that passed under our noses. After last Friday’s dinner we were happy to conclude that Sri Pinang is one of, if not the best Malaysian restaurant in Auckland, managing to balance the concerns of value and flavour rather well.
Although not as cheap as other Asian cuisines (the likes of the establishments that line Dominion Road have set the bar high in the field of discount dining) the five of us were able to amass a veritable feast, although blowing our Cheap Eats budget by five-dollars with an order of tamarind grilled prawns ($26). In truth we probably ordered a little more than we needed, but it was all in the interests of research (read: greedy).
Sri Pinang’s menu is a whirlwind tour of some of Malaysia’s must-eats, with laksas and char kuay teow the mainstay of the lunchtime menu, and a plethora of curries and stir-fries populating the dinnertime one. There are a handful of dishes at Sri Pinang over twenty-dollars, all of them seafood. But you’d expect that any given most of them involve whole fish. Skipping past the entrees (which included satay, curry puff, prawn toast and deep-fried tofu) we went straight for the mains, ordering the said tamarind prawns, chicken curry ($17.50), beef rendang ($17.50), sambal eggplant ($18) and stir-fried spicy beef ($16.50). The meal wouldn’t have been complete however, without the addition of some fragrant lemak (‘coconut’, although I prefer its literal translation ‘fat’) rice ($3) and flaky, crispy roti ($3).
The stir-fried beef, sambal eggplant and chicken curry were the crowd favourites of the night. The stir-fried beef was tender and smoky, chock full of seasonal vegetables including asparagus and slender garlic sprouts, with the overall effect being not particularly spicy, unless you accidentally ate an elusive, devilish dried chilli (in which case ‘inferno’ would be a better description). The chicken curry was a comparatively simple dish but with added comfort factor; thinly sliced chicken and chunks of al dente potato were swathed in a fragrant, yellow gravy, rich and coconut-y. Not a dish for those watching their carb-intake; one has the inclination to eat far too much rice and roti in order to soak up all the wonderful gravy. The sambal eggplant was a tasty stir-fry consisting of large crescents of eggplant in another rich, chilli and coconut-laden sauce generously decorated with crispy shallots and dried shrimp. And the magic tang that made the dish so delectable? Toasted belacan (fermented shrimp paste).
Unfortunately Lynn found the tamarind prawns veering too much towards sour; I would have preferred more of a sauce to accompany the dish as once the charred, sour exterior had been slurped off and the shell removed, what was left was just a plain old prawn. The beef rendang, whilst tasty, was not the best rendition I’ve come across; given that it is meant to be a dry, slow-cooked curry, simmered for hours until most of the moisture has evaporated off, Sri Pinang’s was oddly liquid, with thin slices of beef which makes me think it was stirred in at the last minute rather than having endured hours on the stove. Lynn thought it could have done with more coconut.
Feeling the slow burn of a lot of spice and chilli, Lynn’s daughter insisted on ordering a cooling sago coconut pudding to quell the fire, whilst the rest of us were more than happy to follow suit. Humble and deceptively disappointing in appearance, the sago pudding turned out to be the final highlight of dinner, ending our culinary tour on a sweet note. Topped with a layer of coconut cream, one has to dig their spoon through the hidden layer of toffee-coloured gula Melaka (palm sugar) to reach the tiny pearls of sago and watch with delight as the once translucent dessert turns a rich shade of caramel.
Sri Pinang has proven itself to be ever popular, both amongst younger and older types, winos and teetotallers, Malaysians and non-Malaysians alike. As long as you enjoy good food and good company, you’ll feel at home at Sri Pinang.
356 Karangahape Road, Auckland Central
This review was originally written for Cheap Eats.