A New York native is putting his hometown touch on the Malaysian pizza scene.
But in a country where palates are more accustomed to coconut rice and chili, there’s been some tweaks to the recipes.
Dave Grunebaum has this story from the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Sandwiched between a Japanese restaurant and a sports bar, there’s an eatery with the scent of tomato sauce, baked dough and cheese.
It’s in an upscale neighborhood of the city, where’s there’s a slew of cafes.
The place is called Mikey’s Original New York Pizza.
Along with the pies that are going in and out of the oven, there’s a New York City theme across the restaurant from the traditional 18-inch pizzas with a medium-thick crust, to the red-brick walls that are decorated with playbills from Broadway shows, and photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building and lower Manhattan Skyline.
Instead of numbers to go with the orders, they use New York City street names such as Canal, Houston and Avenue A.
New York City native Mike Helfman is the founder and namesake.
“I wanted to bring a slice of New York to Malaysia that includes food, atmosphere, everything that goes along with it. So we’re almost like an embassy of New York when you come in here.”
I asked Helfman why he wanted that kind of atmosphere.
“Because I’m from New York and I love New York and I feel that Malaysia needed something. It’s kind of like an escape from the outside world. You can come in here and go to New York without having to fly 22 hours on an airplane.”
Helfman is 34 years old, with dark hair that’s graying and a beard. He stands at 5 foot 11 and weighs about 210 pounds.
But admits he’s trying to cut down on the amount of pizza he eats so that he can drop almost twenty.
His distinct New York accent stands out in this country – and his pizza does too.
Just ask his customers.
“It’s really nice, crunchy, tastes good,” one customer told me.
Another said, “you can tell they put effort and pride into what they serve out.”
Mike Helfman came to Malaysia about seven years ago after the real estate market nosedived back in New York.
At first he worked as an investment consultant and in video production.
But after seeing how some local hamburger startups challenged McDonald’s in Malaysia, he thought he could do the same thing with pizza.
“New York is a pizza town and pizza is in the same category as burgers in my mind. If they want a better, more affordable burger than the market will take to a better, more affordable slice of pizza.”
Helfman told me, “when I was here before the pizza business I was studying the economy and I was able to see that the middle class was growing in Malaysia. The consumer spending power was growing and that meant that their taste was expanding.”
So almost two years ago, the first Mikey’s opened and since then it has expanded to three pizzerias all in Kuala Lumpur.
On a Saturday night at one of his restaurants, all 17 tables were taken and there were customers coming in for take out orders too.
As well as having New York on his side, Helfman says there’s another reason his pizzas are a hit.
“Number two, which is probably more important than that was the size of our pizza. It’s 18 inches, which by American standards, by New York standards, that’s relatively average, that’s on par with your typical New York slice,” Helfman says.
“But here they’ve never seen a slice that large before so it became instantly instagramable. Everybody wanted to take a picture of this huge pie in front of their table or this huge slice of pizza that’s as big as their face and that was a big advantage for us. ”
Helfman has also adapted his pizzas for the local palate.
That includes pizzas that are halal, or without pork or sausage, as the majority of Malaysians are Muslim and don’t eat pork.
And there’s also a spicy kick – including a pizza called the 9-1-1, which has all sorts of chili peppers.
Helfman plans to spread his New York style pizzerias across Asia, with plans for restaurants in Cambodia, Vietnam, China and the Philippines within a few years.
“My goal was always to go big or go home,” Helfman says.
A New York sized ego and attitude to go with his New York style pizzerias.