Text and images by KF Seetoh @ Makansutra
He made the news last month when it was announced that his very familiar and iconic corner triangle-shaped coffeeshop at Keong Siak Road had been sold to property developers. This came after decades of operation and a kind of organic fame and recognition (no PR gigs and campaigns) they had that was almost taken for granted. Their coffee, kaya toast and soft boiled eggs was arguably one of the best around and it was no surprise international media, including The New York Times, raved about them.
“My family had owned this building for decades and we were in the coffee bean supply business. I was logical, I rented this from them and operated this kopitiam,” Mr Tang Chew Fue once told me. Recently, a handsome offer of about $8 million dollars was offered to the owners for that glorious three storey conservation pre-war shophouse. They accepted and in one fell swoop, a slice of local beverage kopitiam culture was erased from that beautiful corner of Chinatown.
Mr Tang had to relocate and move 50 metres across the street, “Of course I am sad la, I have to pay 50% more rent and I have lost that famous unique corner shop spot” he tells me, almost dejectedly. The décor now has changed – it looks strange, taking over from a fine dine restaurant and not having much of a chance to re-convert it back to a hardcore coffeeshop look and feel, but “I am working on it,” he adds. In the two weeks since he re-opened “business was down by 60%,” he says. But I think it’s a matter of time before the old regulars miss and find out about his move and bloggers begin to update their followers. Everyone familiar with Tong Ah will ask “where he moved to ah?”
To the uninitiated, and I suspect not many foodies out there are unfamiliar with him, his offerings are so simple, and just done diligently. It remains as I remember and know it to be. His soft boiled eggs are set in hot water for up to 12 minutes, depending on size of pot, come irritatingly wobbly and demands that you spoon some dark soy sauce over with a puff of white pepper, “yolk” it immediately and drink it in. I tried his recipe at home and it works like clockwork. It has that cook-the-whites-only effect.
His kaya toast is painstakingly sliced half and thinly so, and carefully toasted for texture. It feels like a thin crusty biscuit. The kaya is made in-house and about three times a week. If you wonder why his slice of butter is so attractively addictive, it’s because he uses only a certain type of New Zealand salted butter not found in stores.
I never fail to have his kaya French toast. He grills a slice of bread dipped in egg and milk (with a pinch of salt). The beautiful trick he employs is knowing just when to stop dipping, otherwise it comes soggy and grilling it would be a nightmare. A huge spoon of fresh kaya accompanies and a few slices of cold butter sit beside the eggy and roasty toast. One runaway other favourite of mine here is the steamed kaya toast. Don’t underestimate its prowess and ability to please. Mr Tang uses soft kopitiam bread, leaves it in the pao steamer and smears the kaya and lets the butter melt into the cottony soft and warm bread upon order. It’s an old style not many offer these days.
And if you have no penchant for breads, his coffee, and he uses beans from Indonesia, is a sure-fire and cheap way to wean you off fancy wallet busting coffee. Remember, he uses the same beans as these atas (high end) coffee joints.
Tong Ah Kopitiam
35 Keong Siak Road
Hours: 6.30am-10pm (Closed alt Wednesdays)