Sometimes when I am waiting, and waiting, for a barista to steam milk for my cortado, I like to pass the time by imagining what life would be like if Howard Schultz had boarded the wrong plane in 1981 and flown to Penang instead of Milan.
Starbucks, the company he joined after that trip and would eventually lead, might teach its employees the fine arts of Malaysian kopi, brewed by pouring hot water over grounds in the bottom of a sock, rather than show them how to operate an espresso machine. Instead of white-chocolate mocha lattes, we would drink bek-kopi, white coffee, brewed from beans that are lightly roasted in palm oil margarine. Venti would just be Italian for a number, while kopi-C kosong, or strong black coffee with unsweetened condensed milk, would have entered the American lexicon, along with kopi tarik, the same drink made with sweetened condensed milk. There would be no competitions where baristas drew swans and elephants in milk froth, and in their place we would have exhibitions of coffee and tea pulling, the art of cooling the beverage while coaxing the milk in it to form a foamy head by pouring it from one pot to another in long, swooping, steamy cataracts.
In other words, the places where we get our caffeine fix might look a lot like Kopitiam, on East Broadway in Chinatown.
Kyo Pang founded Kopitiam three years ago as a homage to the coffee and tea parlors of Malaysia, where she grew up. A typical Malaysian kopitiam is a ramshackle hangout where people drop in to read the morning paper, grab breakfast, catch up on neighborhood gossip and do all the other things that classically accompany a cup of tea or coffee. Something of that spirit pervades Kopitiam, too.
The original Kopitiam, reviewed by Ligaya Mishan in a 2015 Hungry City column, was situated around the corner on Canal Street and had just four seats at a single counter. In June, Ms. Pang and her new business partner, Moonlynn Tsai, relocated to a larger, if still fairly intimate, space a few steps above the sidewalk. You order at the counter and receive a number on a metal stand, a kind of promissory note for the food and beverages. If you show up on a weekday in the morning or afternoon, when seats are not hard to come by and the room has a languid, unhurried air, you could get just a cup of bek-kopi and linger over it with a newspaper. You will probably want more than that, though.
From 9 a.m., when the doors open, until 10 p.m., when they close, you can get nasi lemak, Malaysia’s national dish and a particular favorite at breakfast. I don’t know another kitchen in the city where the fragrances of coconut and pandan leaf infuse the rice as elegantly, or where the tiny dried fish, which Kopitiam fries with peanuts, form a caramelized crust that erases the distinction between sweet and savory.
Or your breakfast could be a bowl of two eggs boiled just long enough to turn the whites opaque while leaving the yolks free to billow into mushroom-soy broth underneath. Or it might be fish ball soup, grape-size globes of ground fish in a cloudy white broth; if the grains of white pepper on the surface aren’t intense enough for you, you can stir in a little fish sauce spiced with bird’s eye chiles. Rice vermicelli can be added, too, but the soup is easier to appreciate in pure liquid form.
For mornings when nothing but a cannonball dive into sugar will do, Kopitiam is ready with a sculptural pile of thick-cut French toast battered with Milo malt-chocolate powder, a Malaysian passion, with streams of sweetened condensed milk playing the part that in this country is normally taken by maple syrup. Eat the whole stack and you will know the answer to the musical question posed by the Cramps: How far can too far go?
At 10:30 a.m. Ms. Pang, the chef, adds a gang of new dishes to the breakfast crew, and all of them stick around until closing time. There are fresh little oysters embedded in a thin browned omelet, rice noodles in a chilled sesame-oil broth with a growl of chile heat and spicy skate steamed in banana leaves, the classic acoustic version of the dish that Max Ng plays with amplifiers and wah-wah pedals at Momofuku Ssam Bar. Any of these could make a small meal.
But one of the most inviting aspects of Kopitiam is Ms. Pang’s fidelity to the Malaysian love of snacks. Pandan leaves wrapped around a kind of chicken sausage; ground five-spice pork rolled inside bean-curd skins and fried; fried strips of mackerel sausage with a curry-leaf sauce — any of them makes a fine appetizer, but each could just as easily be the entire goal of a between-meals stop at Kopitiam. For that matter, so could the small sweets like pulut: triangular, pandan-wrapped bundles of sticky rice tinted with blue morning glory flowers and spread with toasted coconut sugar or house-made coconut jam.
Ms. Pang is devoted to cakes as well. You get the sense that if it were physically possible, she’d bake every cake she knows every day, but she settles for one or two in an unpredictable rotation. You may find the caramel-brown honeycomb cake, with its intriguing structure of hollow vertical columns at the bottom, or you may find the coconut cake that she was serving a day or two later, or there may be some fresh surprise.
Snacks and sweets tend to get edged out of the spotlight in New York restaurants, where there’s always pressure to order something big. This is, after all, a city that turned the casual tapas bar into the peculiar genre known as the tapas restaurant. There is no such pressure inside Kopitiam, at least on weekdays.
Weekend brunch is another story, as it often is. The menu is the same, but the crowds thicken. A sign-in sheet is kept outside the door, next to the pink pay phone (25 cents; it works), and hopeful customers sit on ceramic garden stools at the top of the stoop listening for their names. When you’re finally called, you may feel silly getting nothing more than tannic milky tea and a bundle of blue sticky rice.
And when demand peaks, chaos can creep in, suggesting that Kopitiam is still figuring out the mechanics of its larger space. Servers may pop by anxiously to ask, “Did you get all your food?” and the answer may be no. Drink orders may stack up. Once the white coffee was off the menu; another time, no coffee at all was being poured; and for a short time one day, both coffee and tea were unavailable, an awkward state of affairs for a coffee and tea parlor.