Friday, 14 February 2014

Ipoh 2014 - Famous Eateries in Decline

I have just returned from my annual Chinese New Year retreat in Ipoh.  In amongst all of the family duties and obligations, there is, of course, a lot of recreational eating.  As much as possible, I try to catch up on how the food scene is developing, as well as re-living the fond memories of my childhood.

The news this year, unfortunately, is not all good.  There is a new zeitgeist in Ipoh, one that involves a lot of construction work (predominantly hotels!), a lot more general buzz and optimism, a new willingness to dream.  But I also had some very ordinary meals at a few legendary eateries.  Now I also had a few good meals, which I will write up in a later post.  But I like hearing bad news first, and I think most rational people do too, so below are a list of places which disappointed recently, and why.

1.  Lou Wong Beansprout Chicken, 49 Jalan Yau Tet Shin

A friend of mine said recently with respect to his restaurant group: "The search for fame is over, now is the time to seek fortune".  This philosophy appears to have been well and truly adopted by the folks at Lou Wong, Ipoh's most vaunted purveyor of its famous hor fun (silky flat rice noodles), beansprouts and poached chicken.  For a couple of years now, Lou Wong's opening hours have been extended to 10am-11pm (they previously only grudgingly opened around 6 pm), allowing them to capture the lucrative late breakfast and lunch trade.  They have also opened a biscuit shop next door to their restaurant, selling traditional Ipoh biscuits.  Quality has dropped correspondingly.

I was back here in 2012 and dommage! the noodles were overcooked.  On my recent visit, a mere three days before the first day of Chinese New Year, the outdoor tables were mostly empty at around 9.40 pm, which is unheard of, especially with the return of the Ipoh diaspora from the Klang Valley, Penang and Singapore.  I remember bringing my then freshly-minted father-in-law here in 2006.  Back then, you had to shadow / harass a seated group of diners just to ensure you could get their table after they left to lodge a police report against you for stalking.  

Even on this quiet night, the beansprouts were slightly overcooked (some may see this as a minor foible, but when you have been practising basically this one dish for so many decades, I would hope you could at least poach your vegetables correctly).  I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Lou Wong were quite generous with the amount of soup in my hor fun this time; they were previously quite stingy with their allocation of tasty chicken-y goodness.  Any questions I may have had were soon erased by the acute sting of MSG on my palate.

Recommendation: Avoid, especially if you have good memories of this place.  Let them remain what they are.

2.  Foh San Dim Sum, 51 Jalan Leong Sin Nam

I was never a fan of Foh San when they were in their old digs in the Perak Amateur Dramatic Association building.  I hated the wait, I hated the heat, I thought the food was stodgy and overrated.  Then a few years ago, the owners must have returned to the mainland for inspiration, as a slew of new and exciting dishes were introduced.  They also moved into a new, purpose-built structure which resembles a proper Chinese socialist fortress; going back to the source for inspiration is good but I can do without the Maoist aesthetic, thanks.

The interior is now also very "Chinese teahouse", and very airy, so the surrounds are actually quite pleasant and comfortable.  Try for a table on the quieter second floor if the ground floor is too crowded.

As for the food, if I tell you that the prawns in the har gow (crystal prawn dumplings) were not particularly fresh, and were, for some inexplicable reason, tainted with chives, that is really all you need to know.  The chee cheong fun (rice flour rolls) were pleasant but joyless.  Even the siew mai and wu kok, staples in the gastronomic arsenal of dimsum, failed to move me.  

Siew Mai - shame the token prawns here were fresher than those in the har kow
The best dishes on my visit were actually the sweets, ma lai ko ("Malay cake", a brown sugar sponge studded with almonds) and xiong pei nai (a delightful ginger-infused steamed egg custard).  And when you can say that with a straight face about a Chinese restaurant, you know something's gone awry.

Wu Kok at Foh San
Recommendation: Still worth a try, but don't expect fireworks on the plate.  Quite a pleasant place to enjoy tea and conversation, if you haven't gotten caught up in the boutique Western-style coffee craze that has seized this town (more on this in my next post).

3.  Choy Kee Egg Tarts, Kampung Simee Market

I had written about Choy Kee before, where I compared the virtues of its pastries to those of my personal favourite, Hong Kee.  Well, I had the chance to revisit them both this year.

I had used a very stretched egg tart-Burgundy wine metaphor of Hong Kee being Gevrey-Chambertin, whereas Choy Kee was more Chambolle-Musigny.  Well, continuing the vinous comparisons, if 2014 Hong Kee is still Gevrey, 2014 Choy Kee is Blue Nun: overtly sugary, watery and ultimately pointless.  The egg custard filling lacks any flavour, and is frankly sweet enough to put off any aspiring diabetic.  Similarly, the upper crust of the kai soh (chicken tart) is crystallised with melted sugar.  I don't know if someone had a hand spasm while pouring out the sugar for the dough that morning; all I do know is that if they are producing wares of this quality, their best days and well and truly behind them.

Recommendation: Are you kidding me?  Avoid.

4.  Let's Rock, 48-50 Jalan Raja Ekram

Let's Rock is one of the great Ipoh institutions which attracts visitors from interstate and Singapore, especially around Chinese New Year time.  They relocated to this double shophouse block in Cowan Street a couple of years ago, and I must say that the greyness of the interior tiling depresses me.  

Let's Rock is essentially two stalls, with one dishing out a quite popular fish head curry.  But Let's Rock is an institution because of its noodles and kap liew, so it is those dishes that we must sample in order to assess its worth.

OK, now here's the thing.  I wouldn't say it has deteriorated, but when you reflect on it, this is not food that really presses your buttons.  It is still a very pleasant diversion, but it doesn't provide extremes of flavour, and it doesn't display an array of dazzling and contrasting textures.  It doesn't have a "knockout gastronomic moment", for example, a particularly amazing beef tendon ball or a kick-arse chilli sauce.  In short, it does not aspire to greatness, and therefore does not achieve it.  

The DIY selection at Let's Rock
And I am not suggesting for a minute that kap liew does not deserve high accolades, because places like Dai Shi Kiok in Pasir Pinji prove that it is more than worthy of them.  The sar kok liew at Dai Shi Kiok, for example, is mildly sweet, lightly crunchy, rather chewy and absolutely sensational.

Apong Balik at Let's Rock
At the front of Let's Rock, you will see an old couple selling apong balik, which is a sweet, coconutty crêpe with crispy edges and a cushy, comforting centre.  They have been part of the Let's Rock story for decades, although they are not related by blood to the father-son duo who respectively run the fish head curry and noodle operations respectively.  Many years ago when I was around the age of 5, I had a bandage placed over my right eye to correct a squint.  The auntie who runs the apong balik store saw the bandage and apparently thought I had hurt my eye!  Feeling sorry for me, she gave me a piece of good stuff on the house.  I have bought from them pretty much ever since, not just because of her kind deed that day but because the apong tasted pretty good, and it still does today.

Recommendation: Not bad, but I must admit I'm not really sure what I saw in it all these years.


So that's the bad news.  I will soon follow up with the good news, although judging from some of the new good stuff, I think the dreaded day is upon us.  Yes, Ipoh is starting to embark on that treacherous path known as development, and a lot of what's good, what's classic, is starting to show distinct signs of fading away.  On this visit, I felt I had many more ordinary meals than I ever had before.  Hell, even the infamous Funny Mountain tau foo fah has become so sweet that it almost literally hurts to eat it.  And when Funny Mountain starts to hit the slippery slope, you know that things will never be the same.

It makes me very sad to witness this, and to have to write this post.  But it makes me sadder to think that my little girl won't have much of a chance to taste the food that inspired me before it all disappears, eclipsed by a massive construction boom that will give us thousands of hotel rooms but in exchange, take away a large part of the soul that made Ipoh a foodie destination in the first place.


  1. I wonder if the decline in quality could be attributed to the fact that it was Chinese New Year. As usual, it's a busy time for food vendors and it's often said the quality will decline a bit during this time.

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comment, and you do raise a good point. However, I always make it a point to return some 1.5 to 2 weeks before New Year, so the places aren't too packed yet. This year, in particular, because New Year fell on a Friday, a lot of CNY visitors didn't arrive until a couple of days before, so I would discount that as a significant factor in the decline in quality.

    In addition, I had never before noticed such problems with quality control even during the busy New Year period, so there must be other reasons associated with the decline.

  3. Noted.

    I will say that I found the quality of Lou Wong has declined over the years. I stopped going there some time ago.

    Yes, it's sad when some of these institutions of Ipoh are no longer what they used to be.

    Anyway, I recall you from posts years ago on egullet. Never knew you were an Ipoh boy. Next time you're back, would love to catch up!

  4. Egullet! Now there's a name from the mists of time! What was your handle?

    Drop me an email? julianswriting AT gmail DOT com