Half a day’s car ride, or a half an hour flight – whichever route you take, Kota Kinabalu (KK) stands out as perhaps one of the most familiar holiday vacations for many Bruneians! However, something that might not be as known to most visitors is the thriving cafe culture in the city, one that’s populated by incredibly Instagrammable cafes, good coffee and great meals.
Just across the road from the popular Gaya Street is a line of cafes along Jalan Dewan, where cafe hopping throughout the day is only dependent on how much coffee and food you can handle before collapsing in a food coma.
With an open space concept and white walls to give a minimalist, airy aesthetic to the place, Woo! stands out with its welcoming interior. Tall windows offer a wonderful view of the greenery and foliage at the back while letting plenty of sunlight in, and all in all, it’s a great place to chill and enjoy a good meal, thanks to the fast and reliable WiFi available.
We ordered the Woo! Breakfast and chicken dumplings for our first visit here, and while the breakfast was good, it was pretty standard fare. The dumplings on the other hand were soft and chewy, with dense, flavourful fillings — not something we’d expected for cafe fare. The iced mocha was on the good side of bitter, while the matcha latte had a nice, smooth balance of flavour.
But it was our second visit there that cemented this place as our top choice among the cafes we frequented in KK.
We ordered the soft shell crab tacos with a side of sweet potato fries, chicken namban (Japanese chicken karaage) and kimchi fried rice; all three dishes were delicious but personally, the star of the meal was the sweet potato fries. If I could bring a bucket of that back home, I definitely would.
2. Biru Biru Cafe
It’s difficult to miss this place with its bright blue walls as testament to its name, and it shouldn’t be missed out, either! As someone who used to sleep at hostels during some of my first few solo travels, Biru Biru Cafe (also known as Sharikat Biru Biru, as seen from its main entrance) truly gives that nostalgic backpacker vibes, along with its cosy charm. Which makes complete sense, as it’s right below a backpacker lodge!
The interior decor is made up of eclectic items, from old-school paintings to matchbox collections, and while there’s no air-conditioning, the place is airy enough that you won’t be sweating through your meal here.
We ordered the classic salmon poke bowl, as they’re quite well known for their poke bowls, being one of the very few establishments to offer the dish in the city, as well as iced caffe latte to go with it.
While the coffee was a tad weak, the poke bowl was refreshing and tasty, with plenty of ingredients to fill you up! It was also probably the healthiest meal we’ve had out of the fare we sampled throughout our cafe hopping adventure. So if you’re planning to stop by, definitely look into their numerous options for poke bowl dishes.
3. October Coffee House
If you’re looking for a place that’ll serve your caffeine fix with a sweet dessert to go along with your drink, October Coffee House definitely hits all the right spots! Situated right around the corner from Woo!, this cafe resembles that of a winter cabin, with its rustic decor and gorgeous wooden design. With a mezzanine inside that overlooks the entire cafe, this is the perfect spot to chill and rest for a while after a morning of exploring the city, whether you’re with company or alone.
While there’s not a lot of natural light thanks to the establishment’s design, the warm lighting adds a certain quaint charm to the place.
Since they seemed to be popular for their coffee, we ordered an ice blended Javachip Cookie, and a brownie topped with ice-cream to go with the drink. We also got a G-Dragon (not the K-Pop star, unfortunately) juice, made with fresh dragon fruit, as well as a soy latte.
While the juice was an interesting thirst quencher (we admittedly ordered it because the purple was pretty appealing), the coffee did live up to the hype, the flavours rich and decadent with a touch of sweetness. The soy nut latte tasted rather creamy, which is good for those looking for a thick, fuller taste, with the added bonus of not having to deal with the consequences of lactose intolerance.
4. Nook Cafe
Our final stop on the cafe hopping tour takes us a few steps past October Coffee House to Nook Cafe, where you’re first greeted by gorgeous, white exposed brick walls mixed with a dark blue design palette that offers a bright, cosy ambience in this little corner of the city. Just like Woo!, the tall glass windows let in plenty of natural light, but there’s also an outdoor section if you wish to enjoy a natural breeze.
By this point we were feeling pretty full, so we merely ordered an iced mocha with the hot Jasmine Pearls tea, as well as one of their recommended dishes, a grilled cheese sandwich with a side of tomato soup.
The mocha was on the sweet side, which means good news for a sweet tooth with a need for a caffeine fix, as the chocolate is pretty prominent. On the other hand, the Jasmine Pearls had a scent as lovely as its name, with a floral hint to its aroma.
I’m not a big fan of tomatoes unless it’s sauce for my fries, which means the soup wasn’t to my liking, but the sandwich completely made up for it! Incredibly cheesy and buttery, with a smooth mustard sauce that was distinctly sweet — it was the perfect meal to end our cafe adventure in KK. In addition, the outdoor section which resembled a rather rustic gazebo offered a sense of seclusion that’s difficult to find in a bustling tourist city, and after a whole day of shopping and exploration, sometimes a good meal and a place to rest your weary feet is all you need, really.
Bonus points if you can boast about it on your Instagram, too.
Planning a trip to KK?
If you’re thinking of dropping by one (or all!) of these cafes, you can either take a leisurely road trip that should span about six to eight hours, or take a short flight from Brunei to Kota Kinabalu International Airport via RB (Royal Brunei Airlines) — one that doesn’t take more than 30 minutes, in fact!
Thinking of what to do on your next long weekend? Maybe it’s time to take part in KK’s undeniably flourishing cafe culture!