JOHOR BARU, Feb 28 — The early bird gets the worm, they say. Well, on this slightly drizzling morning, we rose too late and just missed the worm, or roti canai, as it were.
We’ve long heard about Bukit Chagar roti canai from friends, both Johoreans and Singaporeans alike. You see, the Bukit Chagar roti canai shack is situated quite close to the immigration point, which accounts for roughly half its clientele hailing from the other side of the Causeway. Located at the junction of Jalan Ungku Aziz and Jalan Bukit Chagar, you’ll have to get creative to look for parking for your car. There’s no missing the stall; the long queue of patient customers marks the spot.
And once you’ve figured out navigation to the place, the other thing to do is to arrive well before 10am, which we failed to. (By a measly five minutes, no less.) We noticed most of the tables were empty, never a good sign, but we also noted most of the customers ordered their roti canai for takeaway.
Therein lies the problem. Most customers can easily handle an order of a dozen or two roti canai for their families, which doesn’t leave many pieces left for latecomers. Or, in our case, none at all. The kind Chinese uncle in front of me told me he wanted to order 10 pieces but only managed to snag the last eight; hence none for us.
I smiled at him and said thank you, anyway. He could have easily let us wait in line for the good half hour to reach the counter, after all, since the proprietor was too busy making the actual roti canai to inform us. Here’s where an unexpected smile can be rewarded in kind... and more.
The uncle smiled back and told us that there was another stall that served similar and equally good roti canai, further away. “It’s near the Johor Specialist Hospital,” he said. “I think it’s along Jalan Darum.”
We thanked him again and soon sped away, not wanting to risk missing the last roti at yet another stall. A bit of Googling revealed that “Jalan Darum” was actually Jalan Tarom, and indeed it wasn’t too far from the Johor Specialist Hospital along Jalan Abdul Samad.
Less than 15 minutes later, we were parking our car at the empty, open-air lot opposite the roti canai shop. The shop is called Onn Kitchen and has a quaint Malay warong ambience. It’s actually located at the corner of Jalan Tarom and Jalan Wirawan, both rather narrow streets. A large tree grows at the front of the shop, standing like a mascot.
The tables and benches are all wooden and handmade, weathered by sun and rain. Instead of having to line up the way we did at the Bukit Chagar roti canai place, here we simply grabbed a vacant table and waited for the servers to come and take our orders. Service is brisk and always with a big, friendly smile.
The roti canai is made near the back, outside the kitchen (that also serves hot dishes such as laksa Johor and Malay-style chicken chops later in the day for lunch and dinner). The dough for the roti canai is rolled out by hand before being flipped theatrically to create as many air pockets as possible.
The resultant roti looks rather like a KL-style roti bom but is far less greasy. The flipping has made it fluffy like a croissant on the inside but deliciously crispy on the outside, with the occasional charred bits. Unlike the Indian-style roti I enjoy in KL with fiery curries, roti canai in Johor Baru (sometimes called roti prata, due to the Singaporean influence) is served with a thick dhal gravy and a mild sambal that is neither too sweet or spicy.
Chatting with Onn Kitchen owner and cook Hazri Abd Hamid, I discover that his sister runs the Bukit Chagar roti canai shop, so we are basically getting the same roti canai without the queues and in a far more pleasant environment. With the shade of the leafy branches above us, we can’t help but order some nasi lemak (with an extra fried egg) to go with our teh tarik.
There’s no need to order any roti canai to takeaway; if you want more, just order another platter and have it here, where it tastes the best, fresh from the griddle.
29A, Jalan Tarom, Johor Baru, Johor
Open Sun-Thu 7am-12am; Sat 7am-12pm & 5pm-12am; Fri closed