JOHOR BARU, Dec 25 — Our southern neighbours know something the rest of us don’t. Every weekend a seemingly endless stream of Singaporeans cross the Causeway for a day or two of “eat, drink and be merry” in the Johorean capital.
It’s not simply because food is cheaper here (though with the strong Singaporean dollar, the exchange rate is certainly kinder towards them) but because the Merlions have mastered the knack of uncovering Johor Baru’s hidden food gems. It’s time we get a bit kiasu and get in on the action too.
If you drive down from Kuala Lumpur in the morning, you should arrive in Johor Baru in time for brunch (or lunch, if there’s a bit of traffic on the highway). Head straight to Tampoi, north-west of the Johor Baru city centre. Tampoi has quite a number of factories and many of the hungry workers make a beeline for Kedai Bak Kut Teh Hin Hock during their lunch break.
Firstly, a word of warning: the nondescript lane the shop is located on often has bumper-to-bumper parked cars. It’s probably easier to park further back, closer to the residential area and take a short stroll to the shop, easily detected thanks to its clean, white signboard.
Grab a table first — you may have to wait or practise the trick of hovering over other diners busy devouring their meals, though the tables turn over quite quickly — before heading over to the front counter to order. Besides bak kut teh, Hin Hock is best known for its freshly-poached fish so take your pick of what’s available — such as tilapia, garoupa and red snapper — sourced daily from Pontian.
After making your selection, you could head back to your table and await your dishes, or linger a moment more to observe how the owner Ah Hock and his son briskly handle the cooking. There’s something admirable about how efficient — like clockwork — their entire process is, with nary an order missed or delayed.
Back at your table, Hin Hock’s signature bak kut teh should arrive quite rapidly. Tender pork belly and spareribs are stewed in a herbal broth, lightly redolent of dang gui (Chinese angelica root). The soup is very easy to drink. Dip the meat in the sliced cili padi and diced raw onions in soy sauce for an extra kick.
The fish isn’t steamed but rather boiled or poached, hence its speed to the table. From years of experience, the cooks know exactly how long to keep it in the pot before removing the fish so that they aren’t overcooked. Slathered with copious amounts of aromatic fried garlic, sliced spring onions and secret sauce, this may be better than any steamed fish you’ve had.
Other dishes worth ordering include their braised pork knuckles, served in a claypot; some greens such as some garlicky nai pak (baby bok choy); and steamed tofu with minced pork. Beverages are kept simple: soft drinks, hot tea or iced herbal tea; go for the latter as it’s homemade.
For a laid-back teatime, why not drive to nearby Skudai for a coffee experience away from the city centre’s hub of hipster cafés? Common Space Coffee is a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in Taman Ungku Tun Aminah, serving a clientèle of mainly university students staying in the neighbourhood.
Started in August last year, Common Space Coffee is the passion project of 25-year-old owner and barista Dean Young. He used to work at The Bee in Kuala Lumpur before returning to his hometown to open his own place, offering both espresso-based and filter coffees.
The tiny café feels surprisingly spacious thanks to a simple layout, a white palette and quirky illustrations by Young, who is also a freelance logo and web designer. Customers are spoilt for choice as he has a regular rotation of beans from local roasters such as The Roast Things, Brew & Bread and Alleylab Coffee.
Take your time and linger over carefully crafted cuppas and homemade desserts; Young enjoys chatting with customers when he’s not too busy. Despite its size, Common Space Coffee also hosts monthly coffee appreciation workshops and classes. A tight fit, perhaps, but the better to get to know your fellow students, yes?
Come nightfall, why not have some ultimate comfort food: porridge? Goh Zha Lang Restoran Taiwan in Taman Sentosa (within the Johor Baru city centre) opens till 4am for the post-clubbing crowd. Easy to digest, watery porridge is not too heavy and “healing” after several rounds of drinks.
But you don’t have to wait till the wee hours of the morning to enjoy your bowl of porridge. The old-school restaurant is quite family orientated, with diners of all ages earlier in the evening. Goh Zha Lang’s key attraction is their unlimited refills of porridge — whether it’s plain or sweet potato — at no additional charge. Quite a steal in this day and age.
Of course, no one orders porridge alone; Goh Zha Lang has many delectable dai chow style dishes you can enjoy with your “bottomless” bowls of porridge. An appetiser of braised groundnuts is served first while you peruse their extensive menu (printed on a large yellow sheet of paper; their trademark, really).
You can’t go wrong with their stuffed yau char kwai (the deep-fried crullers are filled with fish paste), braised pork belly, stir-fried sweet potato leaves with sambal, and claypot tofu and vegetables. When you’re done, there are daily complimentary desserts such as lu dou tang (green bean soup) or red bean tong sui with black glutinous rice.
74, Jalan Dato Toh Ah Boon
Tampoi, Johor Baru, Johor
Open: Tue-Sat 8:30am-4:30pm; Sun 9:30am-4:30pm; Mon closed
Tel: 012-3169908 & 012-7856396
Common Space Coffee
36, Jalan Temenggong 10,
Taman Ungku Tun Aminah
Skudai, Johor Baru, Johor
Open daily (except Thurs closed) 10am-8pm
Tel: 012-888 3272
Goh Zha Lang Restoran Taiwan
125 & 125A, Jalan Sutera
Taman Sentosa, Johor Baru, Johor
Open daily 11am-4am
Tel: 07-334 4526