[Ipoh, Malaysia] Old-world Cantonese eats at Hoong Tho

Ipoh, located midway between Kuala Lumpur and Penang on the Malay peninsula (a comfortable 2-hours’ drive from either city), is a veritable goldmine of good Cantonese eats. In my books, Ipoh is the second-best food city in Malaysia after Penang, and ahead of Kota Bharu, Kelantan.

Whereas Penang has incredible-tasting street foods which span Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisines, plus a sprinkling of modern-fusion and Western options, and Kota Bharu stands way ahead in terms of Malay cuisine, Ipoh’s specialty lies in all manners of Cantonese and Hakka cuisine available in its myriad eateries.

Ipohians are the most food-mad bunch of people I’d ever seen - more so than Penangites or KL-lites or any other Malaysian I’d come across. For example, Foh San, Ipoh’s venerable dim sum dining institution usually opens at 6am for breakfast each morning. The first time an Ipoh friend brought me there, we arrived at 5.30am to see a big crowd already waiting outside its doors - way before us!!

Ipoh has famous eateries like Hong Hin which specializes in Hakka-style noodles - and its dining room is jam-packed with diners by 6.30am! Come at 7.30am and you’re too late and will have to endure a one-hour wait for a table. By 10am, Hong Hin will have shuttered its doors for the day!

This time, I came to try the old-world Cantonese fare at Hoong Tho, established back in 1956 and now run by the 3rd-generation of the Yuen family who started it.

The place still retains the old-world 1960s Ipoh traditional Chinese teahouse feel, with Chinese-style marble-topped tables and stools, and carved wooden chairs.
Our lunch:

  1. Lenggong Noodles, a house specialty - this is a simple Cantonese stir-fry of “sang mein” egg noodles with sliced meats (chicken, pork) and crunchy vegetables. I guess the secret is in the sauce and condiments, because it’s got a distinctive flavour which reminded me of food from my childhood.

  2. Caul-fat spring roll - a hard-to-find dish which we use to find in Singapore and Penang in the old days, but not anymore: minced pork, water-chestnuts and shrimps, subtly-scented with Chinese 5-spice and other condiments, wrapped in pig’s caul and deep-fried. Very tasty indeed, and with that elusive “old world” flavour. So, the cooking skills of the Yuen family has indeed been passed down the generations.

  3. Century egg meat dumplings: these are poached and the filling were pork-century egg force-meat, wrapped in wantan skins and poached. Served with a soy-sauce-based dressing and topped with chopped scallions and red chilis, they were delicious.

This place is a keeper. The bonus is that it’s located in Ipoh’s famous Old Town precinct where all the legendary “Ipoh white coffee” coffeeshops congregate: Nam Heong, Sun Yuan Foong, Sin Yoon Loong and Ah Chow all lie within a 100-yard radius!

Address
Hoong Tho Restaurant
20, Jalan Bandar Timah
30000 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
Tel: +60 5-254 9673
Operating hours: 10:30am–3pm, 6pm–9pm daily, except Tuesday.

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Peter, I am heading up to Ipoh on Friday.

Can you recommend three ‘must-eat’ spots? I see a ton of guides to Ipoh all over the foodblogs, but would love your feedback.

Also, is there enough to do that makes it worth spending the night? Or just take an early train/car and come back late?

Very difficult to name just 3, but I’ll try:

  1. Definitely hit the twin coffeeshops, Thean Chun and Kong Heng. I first came here back in 1972 - nothing much has changed: the food is still good, and the crowds are still there. You can order food from either of the coffeeshop and they’ll deliver to the other one if need be. Some food items you should not miss: “kai see hor fun” (chcken-shrimp noodle sup) from Thean Chun, creme caramel from Thean Chun, pork satays (the stall occupies a small space between Thean Chun and Kong Heng, popiah (spring rolls) from Kong Heng.
    You might run into Ipoh-born actress, Michelle Yeoh - she comes here all the time when she’s back in town.

  2. Hit Foh San for dim sum - it’s one of the best in town. Some detractors will insist Ming Court across the road, or Yoke Fook Moon a few doors away. But, for me, it’ll always be Foh San or bust.

  3. Try popping into the newly-reopened FMS, currently Ipoh’s most talked-about eating spot.
    https://www.malaymail.com/news/eat-drink/2019/02/27/in-ipoh-countrys-oldest-bar-and-restaurant-fms-back-in-business-after-11-ye/1727514

Ipoh is a smallish town - very quiet in the evening. Try making a day-trip first and see how you feel about it before you decide to spend a night.

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This is excellent and all I need for a day trip. Will hit all of these and report back shortly. Thanks so much.

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A short 5-minutes’ walk away from Thean Chun and Nam Heong are another two old coffeeshops which are famous for their Ipoh white coffee - thick, rich, sweet Ipoh-style coffee brew - Sin Yoon Loong and Nam Heong. They face each other across the street at Jalan Bandar Timah.

You can also see Hoong Tho (the restaurant featured in this post) on the Google Map below - it’s only a couple of minutes’ walk away from Nam Heong.

Ipoh Old Town is very walkable, so you can actually cover a lot of places within a short time. The challenge, of course, is how much you can eat within that period, as you’d want to try so many things.

A good place to chill out in Old Town is Plan B at Sekeping Kong Heng. Often, when I make day-trips to Ipoh from Kuala Lumpur (I did that a lot back in 2015-2016 when I was still in KL, and before I moved to Penang) and I needed some place cool to rest and have a beer, I’d go there. It’s just behind Kong Heng/Thean Chun.
http://www.j2kfm.com/plan-b-ipoh-old-town/

Back to Hoong Tho yesterday for lunch. Met the current owner-chef, Andy Yuen, 42-years-old. He took over from his 80-year-old dad, Yin Kok Choy, in running this place founded by his grandfather, and is very passionate about keeping the old, traditional ways of cooking alive.

I’d wanted to try other items on the menu, but couldn’t resist going back to the famous signature items - meat rolls wrapped in pig’s caul fat:

Also, the poached century-egg dumplings. Chef Andy seemed to have improved upon the dressing for the dumplings, with a tastier soysauce-based one which made the overall dish tastier than the previous rendition I tried:

I tried another noodle dish this time: crispy rice noodles, over the braised meat-and-seafood sauce:

One must simply have these noodles with Hoong Tho’s famed pickled green chilis - these are cut green chilis (largely de-seeded, so they’re not spicy at all) with a sugar-vinegar marinade. Hoong Tho does it so well that some Ipohian customers simply went overboard and gorge on this condiment, usually provided gratis, one small jar per table.

It’s a good time to be in Ipoh this week - the calm before the storm: it’s Malaysian school holidays next week, and the tourist crowds from Kuala Lumpur and other cities will pour in.

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold