Address: 356 Karangahape Rd, Auckland City.
Phone: (09) 358 3886
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 7, Value: 8, Ambience: 6

With the post-Christmas/holiday credit-card balance looking a little grim, here's a city hangout that will surely stir the taste buds and please the pocket. Sri Pinang falls into the cheap-and-cheerful category. It's plonk in the middle of the city, re-opens mid January when parking is still a pleasure, and the food, at times, verges on brilliant.

We're definitely not talking haute cuisine here, but the decor is pleasant, prices low, portions super-generous and the service excellent. It's not too noisy either. The night we went, the maitre d', Ange, served and advised us, making us feel as though we'd arrived home at Mum's for a meal. Except, of course, there was a choice of around 40 different main courses, entrees and desserts, a long line-up of curries - and no sign of a pav.

Ange started Sri Pinang decades ago when she arrived from Malaysia. Now her three children are growing up as part of the place too. Meanwhile the food remains staunchly authentic: the way Angie learned to cook and work with herbs and spices in her own
mother's kitchen. And while I've never found Malaysian cuisine as thrilling as Thai, Japanese and Filipino, in the right hands it has its place as a slightly less-excitable cousin. It's also eaten with a fork and spoon rather than a knife or chopsticks.

We started with a selection of entrees. The curry puffs were okay, the BBQ pork, though chewy, had a wonderful flavour, while my deep-fried stuffed tofu, which cost just $12, would have fed all four of us. The taste was exquisite and I loved its crunchy edges and the nutty sauce served with it.


The next highlight was our garlic prawns main course. Tender and crunchy on the outside, the prawns come beheaded and shelled. The garlic is strong enough to make your tongue burn at times and there must be at least 25 big, fat, juicy prawns in each $26 serving. They arrived accompanied by a generous mound of salad which included sugar-snap peas as delicate, crisp and sweet as fruit. Delicious.

Other excellent additions were the garlic sprouts and the roti, which was like a cross between bread and pastry and, at $6 for two large pieces, a bargain.

But these were the highlights. Not so thrilling was my Malaysian prawn curry. This time, although the yellow curry sauce was delectable and exactly hot enough (mild in my case), the huge prawns came with their shells and heads intact, and, even worse, they'd been slightly over-cooked. I guess this happens when delicate shellfish are boiled, rather than flash-fried, but it was a shame.

Our other main courses fell more in the middle: The stir-fried squid was okay as was the Cleo chicken curry which, said Ange, could be calmed down with the addition of coconut milk. Although I really enjoyed it, as the thigh meat had been rendered tender and tasty by the slow cooking method, Brian found it too spicy.

Meanwhile, desserts were better than at most Asian restaurants, especially the sago with brown sugar and coconut cream and fruit salad, which pretty much consisted of big, fat, juicy lychees, served with icecream.

All through our meal Ange and her team kept our table tidy, poured fresh tea, provided us with clean plates for each course so we could share every remarkable taste, and generally did all they could to give us a memorable night out.

Our meal: $162.00 for five entrees, four main courses, a heaped plate of vegetables, two servings of roti and rice, two desserts and endless cups of tea.

Wine list: BYO and $1 a head corkage. There's a liquor store just up the road towards Ponsonby.

Verdict: After decades in its K Rd premises, Sri Pinang became a huge favorite with locals. The same people, including restaurateurs, come here for lunch and dinner several times a week for the fresh ingredients, authentic flavours and reasonable prices. While this is not the flashy Asian fusion food beloved by trend-setters, Sri Pinang does an excellent job year after year, serving beautifully cooked and flavoured food alongside its craft beer. The young waiters are well trained, helpful and unfailingly polite.

Try it for lunch or an early dinner, when the view stretches from Orewa to Coromandel.