Forgotten Classic

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by See Foon Chan-Koppen

Having lived in Ipoh for 13 years, I consider it gross negligence on the part of all my foodie friends for not introducing me to Hoong Tho Restaurant! While not as venerable in terms as age as Hung Kee which I reviewed in the previous issue, nevertheless Hoong Tho vies for a place in Ipoh’s food heritage archives, a popular family restaurant that has served happy diners since 1957.

I had heard of Hoong Tho often over the years and it was only a year ago when my hounding of one of my friends finally got her to relent and take me there. When asked why she had kept the restaurant a secret for so long, she was apologetic and said she thought the place was a tad too down-market for me!

Well it wasn’t quite the Ritz in Paris, occupying a two storey shop house on 20 Jln Bijih Timah (Leech Street) and sporting only wall fans with no air-conditioning, but one can see the vestiges of what was probably quite a trend setter in the old Chinese tea-house style, back in 1957. Alas, no efforts have been made to renovate nor refurbish and the physical premises have been left to languish in a state of neglect.

The culinary wizardry though, has not been neglected and has flourished to this day, recipes having been passed down to the current third generation who now run the restaurant.

Specialties of the house are their various noodle dishes done in characteristic Cantonese style with their own innovative touches. Their portions are generous one–person portions and of any of their noodles will be sufficient tasting for five or six people if ordering a few at one time.

Highest on my list of “must-taste” noodles is their Kwai Fah Meen, an egg noodle dish fried with eggs, bean sprouts and thinly sliced meat and other garnishes that has the reminiscent taste of sharks fin fried the same style, except that in this instance, instead of sharks fin they’re using the more environmentally correct noodles in its place and of course at a fraction of the price.

Next on my list of recommendations is the Sang Har Kon Cheen Meen, egg noodles fried crisp and topped with fresh water prawns in an aromatically fragrant sauce redolent of prawn stock generously added. Having eaten this dish in Kuala Lumpur on many occasions at quite exorbitant prices, I was delighted to find that this portion cost only RM10 and the prawns were fresh and firm.

We followed this with the Kon Chow Ngow Hor or the dried fried beef with rice noodles and the Wat Tan Hor or flat rice noodles with a choice of either fish paste or mixed meat and vegetables or sliced beef.

In fact Hoong Tho specialises in this Wat Tan, which means silky smooth egg, style of noodles where the noodles are first fried, some to crispiness and others like the flat rice noodles, with a touch of soya and plated. Then the sauce, cooked separately with choice of meat, fish or seafood, thickened with corn starch and egg white, is added and served immediately. At Hoong Tho their variety in just this style alone is quite phenomenal.  (RM5-5.50 per portion)

Having dipped extensively into the noodle menu, we then ventured into some of their other signature dishes. We had the Foong Wong Kao or Phoenix Balls, (RM8 for 4) minced pork paste wrapped around a salted egg yolk, with a further outer wrapping of pigs caul fat and deep fried. The end result is crispy on the outside, succulent on the inside and with the addition of pieces of water chestnut lending further texture, the salted egg yolk providing the right degree of saltiness, it was a delectable taste sensation for which I will go back again and again. They also do spring rolls with pigs caul, but the Phoenix Balls far surpass the spring rolls.

Pigs caul has gone out of fashion in most Chinese kitchens as the dire warnings of high cholesterol has permeated most people’s awareness and so it is rare to find a restaurant that still use it. It is also a difficult ingredient to clean, and use with dexterity. So I congratulate Hoong Tho on sticking with some of these old traditions. Where else would we find some of these almost “extinct” culinary masterpieces which should be preserved for posterity, not just for its novelty value but for the skill it requires and the taste it imparts to the dish.

Other dishes of note are their Fried Fish Paste dumplings or Chao Yu Wat, fresh-made that day, wrapped in wonton skin and deep fried, (RM2.20 each) their Yeung Chao Chow Fun or Cantonese fried rice which has a deliciously distinctive taste contributed by the crispy fried dried prawns (RM 5.50), their various dumplings (RM1.00 each) and plain greens (RM6.00).

The menu at Hoong Tho is extensive and a meal for 6 averages RM10.00 per head at the most. Value for money in today’s financial crunch.

Location: 20 Jalan Bijih Timah (Leech Street)

Operating time: 10:00 am – 9:30 pm

Closed: Tuesdays