Restaurants We Love: Roti King
How long would you be willing to wait for a truly great meal? Half an hour? Forty-five minutes at a push? Maybe an hour if you were really fucking desperate? How about in the rain? How long would you queue up for if your Reebok Classics were filling up with water, your hair was plastering itself to your forehead like that scene with Kirsten Dunst in the first Spiderman, and you were really starting to regret not having booked somewhere a little less manic instead? That’s a question I’ve had to ask myself whenever I’ve visited Roti King and the answer to that question each and every time is: however long it takes. Because a meal at Roti King – to me, at least – is always worth the wait.
Located on Doric Way just a short walk from Euston Station, Roti King has acquired a passionate cult following ever since it first opened its doors and released a seductive waft of lemongrass and coconut milk into the streets. Lauded in national newspaper reviews and a myriad of breathless blog posts, the restaurant has been touted as one of the city’s best kept secrets for about as long as it's been doing business. So much so that it’s now one of its worst-kept.
From the queue that regularly snakes up and out of its basement premises to the diverse clientele that range from hungry students enraptured by their air pods to star crossed lovers hunched over a steaming bowl of kari, Roti King is a capsule of the diversity that makes the capital great. Oh, and the food’s banging, too. The dishes at Roti King – inspired by the Malaysian home cooking of chef Sugen Gopal’s upbringing – don’t pull their punches or pander to western palates. What you see is very much what you get. The sambal belacan dolloped on every plate of nasi lemak delivers the exact James Brown-levels of hot, salty funk you want and need; the generous portions of char kway teow are just the sort of alcohol-sopping deliciousness you’d want to find on the jalans of Malaysia.
Walking into Roti King and watching those gossamer-thin breads being tossed through the air till they’re seductively see-through will stop you in your tracks whether it’s your first or fiftieth visit. And that’s because Roti King isn’t just a place where you can eat mounds of pliable, buttery roti: it’s a spot that actually delivers on that almost ephemeral promise of “an experience”. Too many austere dining rooms in London will claim to provide diners with “an experience” while simply doling out the same stifling seven-course tasting menu you could have literally anywhere else in the world. But at Roti King? Well, let’s just say that no two meals there will ever be the same but each will leave you with a refreshingly London aftertaste.
Whether it’s because you’ve fucked the job of opening your BYO bottle of wine and have to spend dinner sifting through bits of cork or whether it’s because the waiter forgot your order and you’ve been left looking enviously at the morning-glory-that-got-away being enjoyed by the couple next to you, every meal at Roti King is a distinct entity. I’ve been before when the roti pisang, packed with caramelised brown sugar and banana slices, delivered the exact kind of molten sugar hit that dessert dreams are made of. I’ve also been before where it arrived in a cold, flaccid heap. Like any good monarch, Roti King will always keep you on your toes.
Roti King started off life in 2003 as a popular food court stall at the now-closed Oriental City shopping centre in Colindale and has been manned from day one by none other than the Roti King himself: Sugen Gopal. I sadly never made it down to the original incarnation. It closed in 2008 before I’d moved to London but, from what I’ve heard about it, Oriental City in its prime was a sight to behold. By which I mean that Wikipedia says the arcade's outer façade was “highly noticeable for the large picture of Sonic the Hedgehog attached to it, which had been on the complex since the early 1990s”. Which I think we can all agree is very, very cool.
Supersonic hedgehogs aside, the food court at Oriental City had more in common with a Singaporean hawker centre than your typically franchise-laden British food court. The food court comprised traders that specialised in a range of different cuisines – there was even a dedicated durian stall outside of the shopping centre – well before the concept of a “food hall” was even a twinkle in the eye of a city boy who’d been to Thailand once on his gap year. The site is now home to the Bang Bang Oriental Food Hall, the largest Asian food court in London, and it’s nice to see it’s stuck to its mission statement of providing hungry expats with a taste of home.
Although Roti King moved into its first proper brick-and-mortar premises in 2014, taking over the space previously occupied by Euston Chinese, Sugen Gopal still holds fast to his food court roots. The introduction of Gopal's Corner outposts in Market Hall Victoria and Market Hall West End (which opened in 2018 and 2019 respectively) has allowed the Roti King extended universe to widen its net, enthralling eaters who might have only popped in for a basic burger but found themselves entranced by the fragrant siren song of a fresh-made laksa instead.
Named after Sugel’s father, and existing as something of a Roti King-lite where diners can get their fill of Roti King’s greatest hits without the hassle of a tube to Euston, Gopal’s Corner is a clean-cut, glossier gateway into Malay cuisine. It’s an introduction to Malaysian eats through dishes like mutton varuval, mee goreng mamak, and roti canai – an appetiser for what you can get from a trip to the actual restaurant. Which sort of brings us to the sort of post-pandemic dining landscape we all exist in: a locale where nothing is completely normal yet and I’ve craved the panicky, elbow-to-elbow bustle of a meal at Roti King like nothing else. Perhaps for the physical contact as much as the food.
To tell you the truth, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried that a visit to Roti King would never be the same again; the unique experience of dining there, practically seated on someone else’s lap, is resigned to become a relic of the past like handshakes. Or hugs. Or sex. Part of Roti King’s charm was in its cramped quarters and the illicit thrill of maybe, possibly, accidentally draping your roti through someone else’s kari. Social distancing has made that completely out of the question. But that’s not to say things are all worse now.
With the prospect of sitting on a stranger’s lap having gone the way of the dodo, so, too, has the dreaded queue. All you need to do now is download an app and you can queue up virtually from 2.5 miles away. Which means that, even if it’s pissing it down, you can remain comfortably dry while you count down the minutes till you’re in the warming presence of a dhal kari.
So, maybe I shouldn’t be so worried. Because while the recent introduction of a vegan roti canai is an indicator that the times are a-changin’ at 40 Doric Way, it’s also a sign that Roti King knows how to navigate its way around the current dining climate without compromising on what makes it so great. Rather than stay stagnant and watch the world around it advance at an unrelenting clip, Roti King has consistently (and subtly) adapted to meet the ever-changing demands of the city it resides in. Yes, it's lost a bit of the rough-around-the-edges charm it used to have but, throughout everything, Roti King has kept the most important thing intact: its heart. And that’s what makes it an enduring icon to me. Long may its reign continue.