TANJUNG BUNGAH: It’s past 12pm and hungry workers are pouring out of office buildings into the street. You follow them to a nearby lunch spot, where you are greeted by the familia aromas of laksa, sweet durian and mouth-watering beef rendang.
This wouldn’t be unusual if you were still in Malaysia – but astonishingly, this ‘makan’ place is in Kirkland, about 20km outside of Seattle, Washington.
Robert Tju and his wife Grace Ting Soon are the folks behind Reunion Malaysian Cafe + Kitchen, the only Malaysian-owned eatery in all of Washington, and have been dishing up authentic homegrown food to Seattleites since 2016.
“I left Malaysia to study in Arkansas when I was 19 and flew from Subang Airport,” Robert tells FMT. “When I came back in 2000, there was no Subang Airport, only KLIA,” he laughs.
His airport-related observation is not from out of nowhere: Robert dabbled in aviation technology after graduating with a business degree from college, where he met Grace.
And as it turns out, the thing that really took off for him, career-wise, was his love for food.
The 43-year-old was born and raised in Melaka, while Grace is from Sarawak. Growing up, Robert was surrounded by a melting pot of culture and spent hours in his grandfather’s coffee shop.
“I’m the grandson of a third-generation kopitiam owner,” he reveals, explaining that his grandfather was the man behind Melaka’s renowned Nam Thye Kopitiam.
As the Hainanese were the last of the Chinese settlers and jobs were limited, his grandfather opened the kopitiam about 50 years ago to put food on the table, figuratively and literally.
“I was always there in the kopitiam until we moved to Kluang, Johor, in 1988, but we always went back,” Robert recalls, adding that he and his sister would even help Granddad with the business.
“Having to wake up at 3-4am and work until 7pm, it’s a tough job, but he managed to raise everyone and buy a house. I’m really inspired by my grandpa.”
Reunion Malaysian Cafe + Kitchen was the brainchild of Robert and his brother-in-law Francis Ting, who lived in Alabama before moving to Seattle in 2016.
Robert and Grace, meanwhile, moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to Washington that year.
The three of them had a reunion in Seattle – the “coffee capital of the world” – which led to the name of their establishment. Francis has since embarked on other business ventures, leaving the cafe in the couple’s capable hands.
When they started, Reunion only served coffee and baked goods. “The idea, as we called it, was ‘bake, brew and bite’,” Robert says.
But over time, Asian spices began to play a significant role as Malaysian meals were added to the menu, starting with nasi lemak, Hainanese chicken rice, and nyonya laksa.
The reception, Robert recalls, was tremendous, and to this day these local favourites are well-loved by their customers.
Mee goreng, char koay teow, and onde-onde crepe cakes with homemade pandan kaya are also high on the list of diners’ top choices – each dish made fresh in their kitchen using high-quality ingredients, with some based on decades-old family recipes.
“The laksa is my aunt’s recipe, while the Hainanese chicken rice is my grandma’s,” Robert says, sharing that he has been eating this chicken rice since he was a child and believes it to be more than 50 years old.
“We’ve actually had to rework the recipes as some of the ingredients, like pink torch ginger (bunga kantan) and candlenut (buah keras), are hard to find.”
Resourcefully they’ve found substitutes for these, such as using macadamias instead of buah keras.
Reunion operates from Wednesdays to Sundays, and if you swing by on the weekend, you might be in for a special treat.
“We do specials on weekends, depending on what we can get fresh from the market,” Robert explains. “This week, for instance, we have beautiful Norwegian mackerel and we’re going to make ikan bakar.”
When lobsters are in season, they add buttered and sambal-coated lobster tails to their signature nyonya laksa.
And in true Malaysian style, drinks are done the old-school way. “Besides the typical cappuccino, we do kopi tarik, milo tarik and teh tarik, and people are liking it.
“We pull the coffees or teas in full view of customers, who are always amazed when they see the drinks bubble before their eyes.”
When the pandemic struck, Robert and Grace were forced to let go of most of their staff. Like many other businesses, they struggled to stay afloat but ultimately made it out alive, thanks to the local community and their understanding landlord.
“We have been getting a lot of help and special grants from the city of Kirkland,” Robert explains. “I didn’t even have to pay my rent for a few months as my landlord knew no one was coming to the restaurant.
“I never thought I would get such a nice landlord,” he says gratefully.
While Robert is content with his life in Washington, Malaysia will always hold a place in his heart. He says he misses roadside satay stalls, durians that don’t cost US$100, and – most significantly – his parents in Kluang and sister in Kuala Lumpur.
And as Malaysia gradually reduces restrictions on international travel, Robert is looking forward to seeing them again sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, whenever the cold wind and rain of Seattle makes him yearn for the heat and humidity of Malaysia, he says a hot bowl of laksa is the perfect remedy.
“I shared a bowl with my wife, and it definitely reminded me of the good old days when I was little and would go to my aunty’s place for laksa,” he reminisces.
“It felt wonderful. Other foods just don’t provide that special feeling.”