IPOH, Jan 4 — The expected reaction when one talks about breakfast in Ipoh’s old town — the area recognised internationally thanks to the popularity of white coffee — is usually geared towards visions of sipping the aromatic brew over at Sin Yoon Loong or Nam Heong; both at loggerheads (from a purely business point of view, of course) over at one end of Jalan Bandar Timah.
However, throughout the three years of working within the vicinity, I managed to uncover several places I went to again and again, some even on consecutive days or at least more than once a week.
The first unassuming kopitiam is Sin Lean Lee Coffee Shop, located across the road from Kong Heng coffee shop which is the hallmark of a traditional kopitiam in Ipoh.
First timers to the old town area are forgiven for choosing either the two white coffee specialists mentioned above, or Kong Heng/Thean Chun (also known as the Hall of Mirrors) next door for those are definitely Instragram-worthy places and one needs to tick certain boxes with first visits anyway.
This is just as how one cannot miss bean sprouts chicken at Lou Wong or dim sum at Foh San, no matter how strongly the locals advocate against eating at these established outlets.
However, veteran foodies should know better and explore the possibilities of expanding their eating experiences in Ipoh old town.
Let’s go back to Sin Lean Lee. This coffee shop opens early in the morning and closes after lunch. There are only a handful of hawker stalls here, but what they offer is quality cooking.
Take the infamously expensive (relative to the portion and prices from similar stalls) “golden char kuey teow” stall. The father and son duo have been going at it for decades now, whipping up platefuls of intensively fried Char Kuey Teow (you should grab a seat close by when possible to see how he energetically works on the noodles over flaming heat) with a golden palm-sized egg omelette on top.
The few mouthfuls of noodles (seriously, you could have downed the entire portion without taking a breath) won’t satiate your hunger but this could be a blessing in disguise since there are countless other hawker fare that you should try within the premises.
Next to the Char Kuey Teow stall is the beef noodles stall that offers freshly blanched pieces of tenderloin beef, served in a lightly peppered soup with a handful of chopped coriander.
Being a noodle stall in Ipoh, they also offer various stuffed items or as we call them in Cantonese. The beef balls and beef tendon balls are excellent choices, or you can opt for the more conventional stuffed beancurd or green chillies if you are not a beef eater.
However, a serving of noodles, a few pieces of stuffed items and a bowl of fresh slices of beef may set you back at around RM10 per portion.
The white coffee here is another plus point, an intense brew that’s both robust and creamy without any unpleasant sour/bitter notes from over-frying the beans, but thick enough to jump start your engine in the morning. Sometimes, we would also order kaya and butter toast from the beverage stall, or half-boiled eggs on toast for a more filling option.
And if you are still hungry, then by all means walk over to the stall selling chee cheong fun (steamed rice noodle rolls) and order a portion with chili and sweet sauce, ask for more toasted sesame seeds and don’t forget the pickled green chilies.
If you crave for something sweet instead, this stall also serves an above average version of pulut kaya (sweetened glutinous rice with coconut jam), although this I personally believe is a notch below Keng Nam’s version.
A few readers have commented that the prawn mee (also known as Hokkien mee to those from Penang) is another must-try, but personally I found this average at best.
Once you are done eating all of the above, and you are still somehow eager for more, check out the row of newer boutique cafes on the parallel road of Jalan Sultan Yussuf, hunt for the wall art painted by Ernest Zacharevic (he was also responsible for the now-iconic wall art in George Town, Penang) or walk over to Thean Chun for a serving of caramel egg custard, a few skewers of pork satay or even a roll each of fresh and deep fried popiah.
What I am trying to say is that Ipoh’s old town is ultimately more than just a couple of old kopitiams serving white coffee in porcelain cups. There are countless other dining options available from day until night; this could be the perfect food destination on foot in Ipoh.
Sin Lean Lee Coffee Shop is open for breakfast and lunch, and closes on Tuesdays. This shop is located at the junction of Jalan Bandar Timah and Jalan Panglima in the old town of Ipoh.
James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)