The best lor bak - slivers of meat lightly seasoned with five-spice powder, wrapped in bean-curd sheet and deep-fried – are usually found in home kitchens, rather than in stalls and restaurants.
There is an art to marinating the meat just right, and hawkers do not really bother with using the most tender cut of meat or garnish their rolls with vegetables like leek or yam bean or taro for the play of textures and tastes.
But at Kheng Pin coffee shop at the Penang Road- Jalan Sri Bahari junction, Georgetown, Penang, the hawker’s lor bak offering is exceptionally good. Lou Joo Chon has been frying up these treats for 38 years now, and still takes pride and pleasure in his customers’ praises and positive feedbacks.
The affable man is amiable and chats easily with customers, but not during the lunch peak hours. Then, he wouldn’t even have the time or patience to wait for customers to make their selections – he’d just suggest a mixed plate.
There are many lor bak stalls, and they offer all kinds of everything (like frozen crabstick and sausage) wrapped up in beancurd skin and deep-fried. But at Kheng Pin, Lou stays true to the old favourites – lor bak, prawn fritters, and tofu. There is also fish rolls, deep-fried squids and century eggs, as well as root vegetables dipped in batter.
The meat in his lor bak is soft and tender, and delicately flavoured. It’s also wrapped in only a layer of skin, so the meat is encased in a thin crispy wrapping. The roll is also made thin enough so that the meat cooks quickly, which results in a non-greasy skin.
The secret also lies in Lou’s expert frying. No matter how busy he gets, the fire is not set to a roaring high, but at just the right temperature so that the food is fried without the oil seeping through to the food.
Lou turns and prods at his morsels in his age-worn vat of oil till they are done right, and then he drains them in a wire basket.
I also absolutely love Lou’s prawn fritters. Most people make prawn fritters with one or two medium prawns dipped in batter, but the version here is different. Your every bite will be rewarded with a mouthful of crunchy small prawns. The batter is thin, enough to hold the prawns together and is crunchy rather than dough-y.
But what I also really appreciate with old hawkers like Lou is their dedication to the small touches that makes all the difference. He serves his delicious morsels with his home-made chilli sauce and thick soy sauce gravy. Most hawkers use bottled chilli sauce, but Lou cooks his own chilli sauce which is sweetish and delicious.
He also still provides small metal forks to spear the lorbak and fritters, which are accompanied by slices of cool cucumber.
And that’s why I love going to Kheng Pin for breakfast; where else can you start the day with lor bak, prawn fritters, tofu and century eggs.
The corner lot coffee shop is also open and airy, and they still have the old-style booth seats. I like the kopi-o, and Ceylon tea with milk, and pat poh peng (herbal drink) here too.
The other good eat in Kheng Pin is the wantan mee here. It used to be run by two white-haired brothers, but they have not been there for ten years already. The stall is now run by a husband and wife team, and the latter used to work at the other famous wantan mi stall in Lebuh Cina.
I love my wantan mee not with egg noodles, but with slippery flat rice noodles (tua pan) that slithers down the throat. The soya sauce gravy is flavoured with rendered pork lard, which lends its distinctive aroma and lusciousness that’s worth getting your arteries clogged up (I am saying that with reverence, k, not impertinence, so please don’t punish me God of Coronary).
The Hainanese chicken rice stall here also enjoys a good reputation, but I have never tried it.
Lou said the coffee shop will close for a week in Mac because they are all going to China for a holiday – company trips make for happy hawkers and good food! When we spoke to him, the holiday date has not been confirmed.
Even when the coffee shop is open, there are times when Lou won’t be there. Chances are he is at some hotel somewhere in Singapore participating in their Penang Food Week. Yeah, he is an internationally-recognised celebrity chef.
Kheng Pin is at 80, Penang Road (near the Chulia Street end), Georgetown, Penang. It opens from 7am-3pm, and closes on Monday.
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