IPOH, March 8 — There are but a few eateries left in Ipoh that I personally feel are still able to evoke a strong sense of nostalgia upon setting foot into their premises and tasting the same old flavours from yesteryear.
I highlighted a sterling example last week on Wong Koh Kee restaurant situated along Concubine Lane in Old Town with more than eight decades of legacy. That was a really classic example of “lau zhi hau” (literally translated to old trademark brand) — signature dishes unchanged since decades back, maintaining the no-menu policy, ageing staff staying with the establishment through thick and thin and a no-frills, subdued set up featuring round marble top tables, rickety wooden chairs, steel stools and mosaic-tiled flooring.
Now, Koh Kee is not the only restaurant in Old Town with such a rich history and fan base spanning a few generations. Hoong Tho, located along the same road of Jalan Bandar Timah (Leech Street) but on the other side (note that coming from Hugh Low Street, the junction branches to opposite ways of Jalan Bandar Timah; the right side leads to Wong Koh Kee, Kong Heng kopitiam and Nam Chau curry noodles, while the left turn will take you to the stretch of white coffee stalwarts; Sin Yoon Loong and Nam Heong, as well as Hoong Tho which is located a few doors away from Nam Heong.)
I remember eating at Hoong Tho with my late grandfather and a bunch of older relatives, whereby this was also one of the famous places in Ipoh back in those days for wedding banquets.
The menu has stayed relatively flat throughout the years, which may not be a bad thing at all. You see, most of these popular establishments are known for their trademark items — dishes that they do particularly well and embedded in the minds of followers who come back repeatedly for the same, comforting familiar taste.
In the case of Hoong Tho, they excel in their noodle dishes; including the “sang har meen”; a braised egg noodles dish with succulent fresh water prawns and the “Hoong Tho meen” that resembles classic Cantonese wat tan hor but with a twist; yee mee (egg noodles) in a soupy broth redolent with egg whites, pork and shrimp, with cuttlefish powder for added umami effect. For extra oomph, feel free to add in a dash of dark vinegar then mix well.
In the same league as the other “chu char” Chinese restaurants in Ipoh, Hoong Tho also serves various dishes but their strength lies in their noodles, and deep fried snacks served with their own concoction of sweet and sour chilli sauce.
One item you should not miss is the homemade “yue wat” or fish paste served in a myriad of ways depending on your preference. For us, we usually have them deep fried and dipped into the chilli sauce or soaking in the gravy from the noodles. The fried fish balls are packed with a bounce and sport darker, greyish tones which give away the nature of its origin — made in-house and not sourced from mass-manufactured suppliers.
Interestingly, the deep fried wanton (dumplings) have always been one of their best sellers, and it’s not hard to see why. The crispy skin enveloping the filling of minced meat was exceptional; neither a faint hint of alkaline (lye) water was detected, nor were the morsels being overly greasy and dripping in oil.
Hoong Tho makes one of the rarest traditional spring rolls available nowadays; made with pork caul fat (or what we call “chu mong yau”) that has this unmistakably savoury yet pungent aroma and packed with a delicious filling of minced pork meat and liver, chopped carrots and coriander. Needless to say, this went extremely well with their chilli sauce as well.
If noodles and snacks sound too far-fetched to be a complete feast, then don’t worry. They serve a fabulous version of fried rice as well; the type that includes BBQ pork cubes, very finely-beaten egg omelette and chopped scallions. The “wok hei” (aroma imparted to the food from a well-heated wok and controlled fire) was evident; coming from the hands of the cooks with multiple years in the business.
And you can end the meal with a serving of their pastries; from egg tarts to savoury puffs, or even their signature cempedak butter cake but you will need to purchase the entire slab (about 8 pieces worth). Trust me, no other place in Ipoh does this better.
Walk out in pride, knowing that you dined in a legendary establishment patronised by a few generations and counting, without compromising on the quality of their ingredients, nor succumbing to modernisation.
Hoong Tho Restaurant
20, Jalan Bandar Timah, 30000 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia.
Open for lunch and dinner. Closed on Tuesdays.
James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)