IPOH, Sept 14 — There are a handful of old-timers in Ipoh — those Chinese restaurants with a glorious past — which are still celebrated and patronised by both the young and old after decades.
If you are not from Ipoh, yet familiar with names like Mun Choong or Pusing Public, Hoong Tho, Sun Lee How Fook, Oversea or even Tuck Kee, then give yourself a pat on the back.
These stalwarts have been around since the time when Ipoh was still this tranquil little town set against a magnificent backdrop of limestone hills, when a thirst for white coffee meant you needed to make your way to Ipoh Old Town and wait for a table at either Sin Yoon Loong or the adjacent shops, when Gunung Rapat heong peng was the authentic, coconut husk-broiled variety freshly baked from the home compound of Yee Hup, and when Foh San still was the undisputed dim sum king in Ipoh, serving freshly-steamed or fried morsels within the nostalgic setting of their old premises at the corner of Osborne Street.
But for today, let us focus on Tuck Kee Restaurant.
Sharing the same street address as the tremendously popular Big Tree Foot Yong Tau Foo on Jalan King in Pasir Pinji, Tuck Kee seems to benefit from the overflow of visitors scrambling for a piece (or a dozen sounds more like it) of the latter’s deep fried indulgences.
Since parking space is scarce around the area, people tend to park conveniently around the shops within walking distance to the hawker stalls beneath the towering tree. And Tuck Kee has always been THE restaurant right around the corner; at the intersection of Jalan King and Jalan Queen.
Or, if you grew up within the neighbourhood of Pasir Pinji-Pasir Puteh in this part of Ipoh town, then you might be shaking your head in disagreement at this claim.
Growing up in the 80s around the area, Tuck Kee Restaurant is part of my childhood; the strongest memory was in the early to mid 90s, when Mum used to take away their incredibly delicious roasted meats (the duck, especially), and stingray curry for lunch.
However, actual recollection of dining in the establishment itself was a little vague, save for a few wedding banquets, and in recent times, the reunion dinners pre-Chinese New Year for a few consecutive years. After all, Tuck Kee still offers the best value-for-money packages but never compromised on the quality.
A very down-to-earth restaurant furnished with air-conditioning, yet the classic setup does evoke a strong old school aura and to be honest, slightly outdated compared to spanking new restaurants in the Klang Valley or even the newer kids on the block in Ipoh.
But we were never there for the ambience or to indulge in lengthy yum cha sessions anyway.
Apparently, Tuck Kee serves the best smoked duck breast in Ipoh. This, I discovered a few years back from several sources. Not sure whether they had this all along in their repertoire, but I assume not when we were there back in the early 90s.
To play it safe, it’s always advisable to call a day in advance and reserve a serving for your meal. The smoked duck breast is indeed stunning; very tender to the bite with a light crunch from the skin, and not weighed down by the characteristically-gamey taste of the duck. Sliced into bite-sized thickness, and served on a bed of lettuce drizzled with salad sauce (beats me, but this was entirely neglected by us), a portion is priced at RM18 and deserves all the hype.
But Tuck Kee has never been a one trick pony.
Retaining the quality of their roasted meats; the duck, chicken and BBQ pork (char siew) combination was always a winner in our books, and it still manages to deliver after all these years. Their version of the char siew is unlike my preferred caramelised version that appears to be darker in colour and not tainted with the red dye, but is still miles ahead of plain Jane interpretations served by most wantan mee stalls.
Amongst their selection of roasted meats, the siew cheong (a type of Chinese preserved sausage but with inclusion of pig’s liver) stood out the most. Tender, without unpleasantly coarse bits of pork or fats, and roasted to a beautiful fragrance and texture.
Tuck Kee operates slightly differently from the many other similar places in Ipoh. At the front of the shop, there is a take away counter, just like how Hong Kong restaurants operate in order to cater to the lunch crowd packing food to be enjoyed elsewhere.
From that same counter that has been around for as long as I can remember, a few workers will be diligently serving up the hungry crowd (sometimes the line extending to more than 20 people at once!), chopping up roasted meats, readying packets of individual portions of rice and meats, as well as extras such as our favourite spicy and sour mustard with leftover parts of the meats.
We call this choy geok or kai choy, also sometimes referred to as the “remnants of dishes” but as unappetising as it may sound, Tuck Kee whips up a really delicious version of this side dish – a well-balanced, robust punch from the dried chillies, a few pieces of tamarind, and fibrous mustard greens to soak up the brilliantly tasty gravy.
One other dish that comes highly recommended is the Kwai Fah Egg, a fried, scrambled egg mess with chunks of crab meat and finely-chopped carrots, to be wrapped with pieces of lettuce and downed in one gulp. Simply excellent, with the generous amount of crab meat that goes into the dish. A more premium alternative to this is the kwai fah chi with shark’s fins, but eating fins are a big NO-NO nowadays so maybe not.
There are probably a dozen or more dishes to recommend to you, but trust the ladies taking your orders as they are really experienced and won’t steer you wrong.
And one more tip here — order a serving of their fah sang woo or sweet peanut soup; devilishly creamy, rich and very, VERY satisfying. Share a portion with your fellow diner. You’ve been warned.
Tuck Kee Restaurant opens for lunch and dinner daily, and is located at the junction of Jalan King – Jalan Queen – Jalan Tokong in Pasir Pinji, Ipoh.
James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)