Apr 17, 2020
I was six when I had my first experience with toddy, a type of working-class palm wine. I was told by an aunt to grab a couple of takeaway plastic bags of the drink at a dive bar in a half-forgotten part of my hometown of Ipoh. Her instructions: “go in, ask for two bags, pay the money and get out.” She, of course, waited outside in her little racing-green Morris Minor with the engine still humming. The toddy acted as the leavening agent for her famous steamed flour buns. I still recall the bleary faces of the people in the bar, with its precariously hinged wooden saloon doors. These guys were probably more surprised at my appearance there than I was, but blasé—and drunk—enough not to react visibly to a six-year-old ordering bags of contraband booze. This was the extent of Ipoh’s nightlife in the 1980s; in the past couple of years, much has changed.
My friend and I sit on stools outside a pre-war shophouse at a joint called Kikilalat (fb.com/kikilalat.place; drinks from RM25). Old Town is not this whisper-quiet during the day, but tonight this road is ours. Illuminated by old street lamps, we’re tasting a recalibrated version of toddy, which was introduced to the Malaya by Indian laborers who toiled on rubber plantations. The updated version, stored in a steel cask at Kikilalat, is crisper and punchier, made with fresh lemongrass. Its wisps of acidity and floral notes take the sting off what has always been a pretty harsh drink. A nice metaphor for all the ways the imbibing culture of Ipoh has been upgraded.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Tiga (fb.com/thetigabar; drinks from RM30) means “three” in Malay, and it’s presumably named after the lane where the bar is located, which was once where third wives of tin magnates and other well-to-do men resided. The space resembles a rough-around-the-edges 1950s shophouse, down to the communal washrooms, now stocked with Aesop toiletries. Grab a seat, and have a taste of bartender Alvin Au Yong’s Concrete Jungle, Tiga’s riff on the Jungle Bird, Malaysia’s national cocktail. With the Concrete Jungle, local flavors and condiments dominate. There’s sesame rum, curry Aperol, port wine and a dash of homemade syrup.
Owner Sunny Lim’s ethos for Tiga is a crafted sepia-tinged frame of what life was in the 1950s, a time when partygoers inspired by the Rat Pack made efforts to dress up. One can only imagine what these folks will think of the Market Club, a dessert-like concoction of coconut palm, lemon, pandan-layered gin and egg white. If the building’s roughly hewn cement walls could talk, they would probably say “bring it on.”
HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT
Over in New Town, walk through a black steel door (for directions, ask the burger flipper), amble up a flight of red lamp–lit stairs in a corner shophouse next to Konda Kondi Cafe, and you’ll arrive at Atas (fb.com/atas183; drinks from RM30). Looking like a 1970s home down to the Singer sewing machine and chintzy tropical wallpaper, this speakeasy-slash-living-room draws crowds of the city’s slouchy college party kids in regulation tropical-hipster uniforms of colorful Hawaiian shirts and baggy pants—the baggier the better. They come for bartender Shehab Mafuz’s creations. He mines local ingredients like pomelo and pandan syrups, edible flowers, along with Martell Noblige and peach liqueur to create the Tambun Nobility. The crowd here doesn’t take itself too seriously. The lack of pretention is as refreshing as the fruity Thrift Store Hipster, a potent combination of blanco tequila, hazelnut liqueur, pineapple juice and spearmint syrup, best enjoyed with hip hop from the in-house DJ.
QUIRKY COCKTAILS, UP COLD
I nearly got lost getting to Falim, a satellite town known for its heavy industry. Development has come so hard and so fast that Google Maps has had difficulty keeping up. This is also where La Rouge (fb.com/larougecocktailbar; drinks from RM30), a seemingly incongruously cool cocktail bar can be found. Sink into one of the red-velvet chairs and order the Fish House Punch that bartender Skyy Wong mixes with rum, cognac, peach tea, citrus and bitters. Slightly out of the way, yet absolutely charming, this little spot caters to locals, but out-of-towners might also get into the bar’s low-key vibe. It doesn’t get more insider than this.
THE COLOR OF NIGHT
Equally inventive are the guys at Lumi (fb.com/lumicocktailbar; drinks from RM30), a cocktail bar with flicks of worldly sheen in a non-descript first-floor walkup of a generic office block. The bar’s velvety aqua-toned furniture complements the impossibly sultry Mr. Grey that bartender Keith Foong, a swarthy Asian version of Jamie Dornan, shakes up with gin, Earl Grey tea, milk and yellow chartreuse. Lumi’s setting is louchier than the other bars, and channels the 50 Shades of Grey mood with faithful discipline. Order the Black Market, a soulful blend of rum, Guinness, coffee and Dom Benedictine. To cap the evening of liquid debauchery, it’s easy enough to head for a midnight snack at one of many late-night food stalls in town. A plate of spicy wok-fried noodles or a curry-drenched roti canai will bring you back to equilibrium in no time.
If one were to gauge a city’s hipness by the quality of Oriental-themed bars it boasts, then She Said Hidden Lounge (fb.com/shesaidlounge; drinks from RM30) would guarantee Ipoh’s place near the top of the list. Owner Desmond Choon makes full use of all the usual Chinese tropes—calligraphy notebooks as menus, ornate porcelain tea mugs and red lanterns, lots of them. Fixtures look as if they could have come from the living room of a family home, right down to the “good luck” banners in Chinese script. In its unexpected location on the first floor at the back of a hot-pot restaurant—one could be in Shanghai or Shenzhen—the crowd here looks like they could balance both East and West, Tinder and Taobao, with easy nonchalance. The drinks list clearly reflects this.
Take a slurp of the Concubine, a sweetened silken pillow–soft tofu dessert spiked with gin, and you’ll come to understand that almost anything goes in Ipoh. My six-year-old self would be the first to agree.
Ipoh is a 2½-hour drive from KL, a stopover on the way to George Town or the Cameron Highlands. Known for its hipster beans-ground-on-the-premises cafés and tasty local hawker fare as well as its charming coterie of laidback bars, Ipoh is also accessible via two daily flights from Singapore on Scoot (flyscoot.com) and AirAsia (airasia.com).