SEMENYIH, June 20 — Getting food recommendations and tips can be a double-edged sword. They can introduce you to a hidden gem or disappoint, if you proceed with too high an expectation.

Worse, warnings of long queues might put you off visiting the much hailed eatery in the first place. But fortune favours the bold, as they say.

So it was with eager bellies, much hope but also no small amount of scepticism that we approached Restoran Tian Tien Lai in Semenyih. A friend had endorsed the shop for their popular sang nyuk meen or Sabah-style pork noodles.

The same friend had cautioned us to be prepared for a formidable line for tables too. Fortunately, we found the shop only half empty when we visited mid-morning on a weekday.

We could see diners already busy tucking into their bowls of soupy sang nyuk meen; the default order, it would seem.

'Kopitiam' style coffee and half-boiled eggs.
'Kopitiam' style coffee and half-boiled eggs.

In Cantonese, sang nyuk translates loosely as "raw meat” but what it refers to here is actually fresh meat rather than frozen.

That is the defining feature of this celebrated Sabahan dish — the freshness of the pork used means every slice is bouncy and moist, not dry and tough as you might have encountered at other pork noodle stalls.

Other porky ingredients include meatballs, liver, intestines and tendons. Tian Tien Lai’s sang nyuk meen stands out for the inclusion of greens (siu bak choy) and wantan dumplings.

Every bowl is meant to be a hearty breakfast or lunch, meant to last you for the rest of the day.

We were early enough that it seemed appropriate to order some kopitiam style coffee and half-boiled eggs. There’s nothing quite like a dark roast kopi O to wake one up good and proper.

Classic 'roti bakar' with butter and kaya.
Classic 'roti bakar' with butter and kaya.

Of course, it isn’t a dynamic duo but a tested trinity: you need some roti bakar with butter and kaya to complete the picture. Dunk the toast into the eggs and pour some kopi into the remnants for a truly "power” cuppa!

Besides sang nyuk meen, Tian Tien Lai also offers asam laksa. It’s another popular choice, judging by the orders at tables around ours. We would reckon one order of asam laksa for every two orders of sang nyuk meen.

Given there are only two of us at our table, it’s understandable that we both opted for sang nyuk meen. To mix things up a little, we ordered both the soupy and the dry or kon lou versions of sang nyuk meen.

I have to be honest: I nearly always prefer the kon lou version of noodles, be it wantan mee or pan mee.

For one, it can be quite a steam bath when confronted with an entire bowl of soup noodles, the hot wafts ensuring your pores open up for an impromptu facial treatment. Not exactly the most enjoyable experience given our already humid climate.

Dunk it!
Dunk it!

This is where kon lou noodles can be superior if you want to slowly sip and savour the flavours of the soup without being drenched in sweat yourself. Alternating between bites of the noodles, slick with sauce but at a more reasonable temperature, the hot soup is far more manageable.

Tian Tien Lai’s kon lou sang nyuk meen doesn’t veer from this theory of mine. What you get is oodles of noodles coated with beautiful dark soy sauce and aromatic oil from frying pork lard.

The best part? It’s not too "wet” as some kon lou renditions can be, almost drowned in soupy sauce (I’m looking at you, almost all kon lou wantan mee in the Klang Valley).

Here, a judicious hand in blending the dark soy sauce and pork lard oil helps ensure the kon lou noodles are flavourful but not too "porky”.

Contrary to popular social media belief, more is not always more; there is such a thing as a deluge of pork lard in a dish at which point you might as well be mainlining liquid chicharrones.

Could this be what sets Sabah-style pork noodles apart from its peninsular cousin — a masterful restraint?

Oodles of noodles - the dry or 'kon lou' version of 'sang nyuk meen'.
Oodles of noodles - the dry or 'kon lou' version of 'sang nyuk meen'.

Whatever the reasons, the sang nyuk meen clearly has its fans. Though there is no need to be fretful of getting a seat, given how easily we found ours.

Perhaps we spoke — or thought, as it were — too soon. By the time the clock showed it was noontime, groups of customers came rushing in. Soon there was a queue for available tables.

A packed house during lunch hour is always a good sign. Tian Tien Lai’s reputation for crowds is well deserved.

Therein lies a lesson too: For every customer who prefers the porkier, more concentrated broth of your standard pork noodles, there will be loyal regulars who appreciate the cleaner, more subtle flavours of a good sang nyuk meen broth.

Certainly the tender morsels of fresh meat and entrails, lightly poached, are something to long for. We wouldn’t blame you if you are already planning your next visit even before you have left the premises.

 A packed house during lunch hour.
A packed house during lunch hour.

Restoran Tian Tien Lai

79, Jalan Semenyih Sentral 5, Taman Semenyih Sentral, 43500 Semenyih, Selangor

Opens daily (except Tue closed) 7am-2pm

Phone: 012-329 6518

* This is an independent review where the writer paid for the meal.

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