By SeeFoon Chan-Koppen

It is not often that one gets to tuck into yummilicious food in an ambience exuding nostalgic memories from a bygone era. An experience of Ipoh’s Old Town “Soul”.

And now there is 22 Hale Street; and Dong Cafe @ 22 Hale St.

It is the ultimate oasis from the heat of Old Town Ipoh and the crowds on weekends. The space is a stunning eclectic mix of old Ipoh and a trendy Cafe Bar, and the food is even more arresting.

Drop any ideas of a quick hamburger with French fries, a milkshake and a sandwich here at Dong Cafe. Here you will find authentic Peranakan dishes, old style Ipoh iconic snacks and of course the inimitable Ipoh White Coffee.

As you sit soak in this atmosphere reminiscent of halcyon days of yore, browse the menu and leisurely order your snack or a meal. Mouldy Oldies play in the background and you’re trying to decide if you’re having a coffee or a beer. Even a glass or bottle of wine if the hankering is there. A choice is available.

Having bought your ticket for the self-guided tour or the guided tour which is conducted at 11am, 2pm or 4pm daily, you sit back, place your orders and wait for the food and drinks to arrive.

This happens very promptly and the gourmandizing begins.

As an appetizer, the Pie Tee (or local nickname: Top Hats) is a rare treat. Small cups of fried batter looking like top hats and hence the nickname, is served accompanied by a portion of hand sliced local turnip or sengkuang with slivers of carrots and medium shrimps. These are placed inside the pie-tee shells, topped with a dollop of their special chilli sauce and the whole piece popped into the mouth. This dish is so seldom offered in menus nowadays because the casings are so labour intensive and difficult to keep crisp. Eating it here at Dong Cafe was for me to relive the carefree days when labour was cheap and no amount of effort was considered tedious. The chilli sauce, far from coming out of a bottle, is freshly made and had just the right tangy consistency; RM16.

And this was just the beginning. Blue rice (coloured with the blue butterfly pea flower...all natural…) with Nyonya Chicken Rendang served with half a salted egg, two types of their own homemade pickles were, as usual, delectable, the chicken juicily tender, smothered in a thick gravy redolent with herbs; RM22.

We were five of us so we could order to our heart's content and shared the dishes. Next came the Nyonya Fried Rice with Ayam Rempah or fried spiced chicken, served with homemade sambal belacan and sliced pickled shallots. The chicken was tender and well marinated with tendrils of spices clinging to the skin; RM22.

I wanted to try their Sea Tiger Prawn Runny Egg Noodle which arrived with four very fresh giant prawns, ‘Lai Fun’ rice noodles stir-fried with bean sprouts, fish cake and egg, reminiscent of the Fried Hokkien Noodle I used to eat in Singapore; RM28. They also served the same noodle with squid for RM18. This dish came with a different chilli sauce which complemented the dish.

Grilled Saba Fish with Cantonese Fried Rice was perfect for the non-chilli eaters at the table, the Saba fish grilled to perfection and served with half a salted egg, pickled shallots and cut chillies and soya sauce; RM19.

Then came the Nyonya Laksa Noodle, one of the signature dishes of Dong Cafe. The broth was umami, with fish flakes providing the base and layered by herbs like bunga kantan or torch ginger flower and a host of other spices. Raw sliced cucumber, pineapple, shallots provided the crunch against the smooth Lai Fun. RM18 for a bowl of wholesome goodness.

Even children are catered for at Dong Cafe with a bowl of the umami macaroni, beef bacon and potato soup, served adult size for sharing at RM14.

Then came the delectable desserts. For the traditionalists, there is always the Kaya Toast made with dollops of real butter (unlike margarine in other cafes) crisp, buttery and not too sweet with kaya provided by an “Uncle” who makes it at home; RM5. This is one of my favourites unless I consider the Bubur Cha Cha, the very traditional Nyonya dessert made with coconut milk, coconut palm sugar, taro and sweet potato; RM6.

And then came what I consider the “Temptations”. Salted Egg Croissant at RM16, a crispy croissant oozing with salted egg cream filling which just sends you into ecstasy and the Coffee Affogato, that is topped with soft serve ice cream and caramelized sago pearls. Heaven in a spoonful RM12. Vegetarians and vegans are catered for here. Just tell the wait staff.

DONG CAFE @ 22 HALE ST. 22 Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Ipoh.
Business hours: 11am-6pm daily.
Closed: Wednesdays
Reservations: O5 241 3991

For the Gallery upstairs: A special summer promotion of RM5 per ticket self-guided tour and RM10 guided tour 11am, 2pm and 4pm in English, Mandarin or Cantonese.