Friday, January 2, 2009

Meng Kee Char Siew, KL. Is this the best there is?

tapow from Kuala Lumpur, recommended by wacow

My favourite in Singapore is Kay Lee Roast Meat Joints at Paya Lebar. The Lady Boss roasts some great meats...sweet, fat and flavourful, and crisply charred (combination of caramelisation and Maillard provided by the sugar, herbs and spices in the marinade). I also love the char siew at Overseas Restaurant at Jalan Imbi, KL. These serve char siew as it should be...fat meat, marinated, sweet, sticky, charred till bits are crispy.

This trip to KL, although I went to Overseas twice in as many days, I did not get to eat char siew...I will blog about the lunch later, sadly sans char siew, but nonetheless still very good.

Anyway, in the excellent discussion over at the ieatishootipost forum , one of the super-makan gurus, Wacow highly recommended Meng Kee.

Intrigued, I took a short walk from JW Marriott to the street parallel to the famous makan street in KL - Jalan Alor, to Tingkat Tong Shin.

Unassuming shop lot, methinks. The roasted meat and boiled chicken share the workstation...hanging unceremoniously...well, meat needs to be rest after roasting...the heat from the fire causes the proteins to shorten which leads to tough meats...but a short rest will allow the meat to relax.

The char siew looks promising...charred, more black than red, sticky outer hints strongly of crisp, sweet. The meat looks sufficiently fat. The cut looks right...all the right ingredients for a great char siew. The tale is that the special secret marinate they use makes this crisp, and excellent control of a fierce charcoal fire during roasting.

RM20 got me 2 strips, about 6 inches long each. I bought them uncut, so readers can savour the charred, crisp look of the char siew.

Meng Kee - uncut and unplugged.

Back home...hand carried in the flight back...sliced for dinner (char siew was purchased about 11am in KL).

Meng Kee - the fatter cut.

One was rather lean, and the other, rather fat. The fatter cut was more flavourful, tender and certainly very shiok. The leaner cut was not tough by any standards, but offered more bite and was slightly chewy...the texture and the chewing brought different flavours to play in the mouth. I am hard pressed to say if I prefer the fattter cut or the leaner one. They are different, and can be enjoyed for the flavours each bring.

Meng Kee - the leaner cut.

Some sweetish, salty black sauce accompanies the char siew, but real char siew lovers will not dip the precious meat in any sauce, lest one loses some of the sticky, sweet marinate to the sauce.

Compared to Overseas, the Meng Kee meat is somewhat leaner , and less caramelisation of the sugars, though by no means lean or savoury by any standards. The Overseas char siew, in memory was also more tender, more melt in your mouth. It had a sweeter caramelised outer, more charred: on its own the outer crusty bits were a treat...crispy and had its own special taste. But do note I am discussing very small differences, I will be happy with either, or any listed in this post. They are that good.

In comparison, Lei Garden recently sampled in Hong Kong was more savoury...the balance of taste was tilted towards salt and less sweet. The cut of meat used in Hong Kong looks like fillet, with two rows of muscle, surrounded by fats. But the varieties sold in KL looks like its either belly meat (what is known as Five Flower Meat), shoulder meat or armpit meat.

Meng Kee is somewhat in the middle to strongly leaning towards the caramel/sweet stakes.

But certainly Meng Kee's rank amongst the top few I have tasted. Read also ieat's dessertation on char siew, and his recommendation of Fatty Cheong's.

Postscript: hot off the press. I went to Fatty Cheong's today (Jan 2) for lunch...and sampled the Pu Jian Tian and Shoulder pork char siew. Here are a picture of the armpit meat. Fatty himself was in attendance, and he was a jolly kind of fellow.

Pu Jian Tian cut from Fatty Cheong

Fatty's roast was lighter and the char siew redder than those found in KL. He said Singaporeans prefer a leaner meat and one which is less charred. But note that due to the ferocity of his fire, and perhaps some hot spots, when he fully caramelized and char the bits, the Maillard reaction kicks in, see the part at about 4 o'clock, this was crisp, slightly sweet, and reminded me of Meng Kee...if only slightly less sweet. I think the origin of the pork is also different, as the Malaysian pork used by Meng Kee and Overseas are local and fresh, and Fatty had to contend with frozen or chilled imported pork.

Shoulder cut from Fatty Cheong
Fatty also offers the shoulder pork. Amongst the tasters present - three men and two ladies, the ladies and one of the men prefer the shoulder pork as the cut was leaner, and had a bit more bite. The other two preferred the armpit cut.

To cut the story short, for now, I think KL is safe. They reign as the kings of char siew. And in Singapore, for my tastes the armpit char siew at Kay Lee is tops.

If there were a ranking...I will put Overseas and Meng Kee at tier 1. The styles of these 2 are similar, and differences should be attributed to style and intensity. This is a highly personal selection. This ranking will place Kay Lee very closely behind in tier 2. Kay Lee, despite catering to Singaporean tastes, is roasted in a similar philosophy as the KL brethen...sweet, charred, fat. Lei Garden at IFC is somewhat similar in ranking to Kay Lee, but totally different style, being salt led in the taste. Then in tier 2, but very slightly lower is Fatty Cheong's. I will eat any of these 5 char siews anyday. As a reference point, I will place the plebeian char siew found ubiquitiously in various hawker stalls are in tier 4 and below.

And finally, by virtue of reputation alone, I would like to add that I have yet to try the old favourite in KL - Soo Kee at Jalan Ampang.

Meng Kee
13 Tengkat Tong Shin
Bukit Bintang
Kuala Lumpur
Tel No: 017 -6388648
Open for lunch time only from 11am (but often by 10:30 it is ready)...typically finished by 1:30-pm, closed on Sundays.

Photonotes: the stall was rather shake apparent in the pic of the hanging meats. Uncut char siew taken at hotel window, with good sunlight. Cut pics taken at home under PIL lighting, balanced using white tissue as WB reference.

The Fatty Cheong'shots were taken with a Canon Ixus 40.
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