You may remember Chef Lai Noodle Cafe on California Street: the charming family-owned Malaysian joint which, for six years, was one of the city’s most beloved places to find home-style Kuala Lumpurian food. Co-owner and chef Jimy Lai, his wife Amy Kerk and their kids Nelson, Admon and Gavin were among the restaurant’s drawcards – known for their tasty cooking and affable personalities. Kerk was sorely missed for her affectionate, jokey way with guests: “We called her ‘Mum’,” say old regulars Mark Kamleh and Carlo Jensen, who used to visit Lai’s around twice a week.
Lai’s Pantry is the latest iteration of the restaurant, whose closure in September 2019 left many fans scratching their heads (Nelson: “My parents decided to take a break from the hospitality business”). Like at the old shop, there are few frills. The new spot isn’t much more than four wooden tables covered with protective plastic, and a mostly stainless-steel open kitchen bookended by standard issue fluorescent lighting and wipe-clean menus.
It sits among a block of shops on Hanson Road in Mansfield Park. “In an area that is dominated by Vietnamese cuisine and pizza shops, we thought to bring something different to the community with Malaysian food,” says Nelson of the family’s decision to move to the ‘burbs.
Kamleh and Jensen are among the many punters pleased to see the couple emerge from retirement. Happily for those who loved the original, and its consistently great menu, the food at Lai’s Pantry is largely the same.
A smoky char kway teow with rich wok hei (breath of a wok) is punctuated by thick rounds of lap cheong sausage. In the pan mee, slippery hand-torn rice noodles swim in a light chicken broth with crisp anchovies and pork mince. There is, of course, Hainanese chicken rice, laksas of various flavours, and nasi lemak served with beef or chicken curries, or fried chicken.
Among the hero menu items is yong tau foo, a Hakka Chinese dish of vegetables and tofu stuffed with fish mince served in a clear, yellow-ish broth. “It’s only available on selected days due to the availability of the fish,” says Nelson. The modest bowl comes with a side of chilli sauce for dipping, and there’s the option to add noodles if you please.
Loyalists will bemoan the – hopefully temporary – loss of the Lai’s Adelaide-famous fish-head curry from the menu. “This curry was wildly hard to get a hold of even back when they had the old spot – it normally needs 24 hours’ notice and even then you still might not get it,” Kamleh tells me. “I've had it once. I took my own pots and containers for them to fill. It fed five of us, it was so good.”
Rounding out the succinct offering at Lai’s 2.0 are drinks teh tarik (Malaysian sweet tea), kopi and cold milo, plus desserts. Cendol, a sweet, icy pudding, is a lively mix of coconut milk, green jelly and palm sugar, while ice kacang is a hearty serve of finely shaved ice that arrives heaving under the weight of red beans, jelly and sweet syrup.
“As a family, we’re thrilled to be back serving the community with delicious Malaysian food,” says Nelson. “It’s great to be able to see our previous regulars again and introduce our cooking to new people as well – and, most importantly, to see customers enjoy their food.”
Judging by the social media fanfare – and the wait time for one of the four wooden tables when Broadsheet visited recently – Adelaide is just as pleased as the Lais are.
3/270 Hanson Road, Mansfield Park
Thu to Mon 11am–3pm, 5pm–8pm