I love Hawthorn. This suburb, only 15-20 minutes from my house, holds a special place in my heart for several reasons. But due to time constraints tonight (early start tomorrow, argh!), I’ll just list two one:
My dad was an international student studying Applied Science at Swinburne University during the late 1970s. This was before the days of IT degrees and every student having a computer to themselves so I don’t exactly know what they taught him. Nevertheless, he managed to gain enough nerd skillz out of that course to become a systems analyst a few years down the track. It wasn’t all fun and games back then though – uni students these days have it much easier. There were only like, five TYPEWRITERS in his faculty that was for students, and whenever he wanted to type up an assignment, he would have to queue up to use the typewriter. I don’t want to imagine what I’d do if I was in his shoes. Ugh.
Anyway, so that was pretty much how it was back then. Apart from hanging around with uber nerds, he hung out with a bunch of Indonesians who knew some other Indonesians studying in Melbourne and that’s how he met my mum (awww!). And because Australia was a backwards nation back in the late 1970s, there wasn’t much to do in the form of entertainment except for sitting around in someone’s apartment, singing Indonesian folk songs. This was also before Melbourne became Australia’s foodie capital so there wasn’t much in terms of decent food. There was only one Malaysian restaurant back then and that was Penang Coffee House in Hawthorn, just around the corner from Swinburne.
It was one of my dad’s favourite joints as a student because well, who the heck would choose soggy chips and mutton over a steaming bowl of laksa?! Okay fine, Aussies would have back then. But not my dad. He was there fairly often; it was his favourite Malaysian joint before more and more Malaysian restaurants started mushrooming around Melbourne as more and more Malaysian immigrants came during the next few decades. Now, he says that Rasa Malaya in Doncaster East serves better food but critics still say that Penang Coffee House still serves decent Malaysian food.
Adam and I decided to see for ourselves today. We took the train to Auburn (gotta love cheap arse Sunday tickets) and walked down Burwood Road to the small, modern-looking cafe. The funny thing about this place is that despite their name, they don’t actually serve coffee on their menus – not even Malaysian cold coffee. If anyone can explain why they’d call it Penang Coffee House, then please enlighten me. The guy who served us was this tall Asian guy with an Aussie accent whose family became the second (and current) owners of the restaurant. We decided to order an entree and a main dish each and share everything. Here’s what we got:
Loh Bak (meat spring roll wrapped in beancurd) + fried tofu cubes ($5.80). My mum makes an Indonesian interpretation of this dish which tastes better than the one that was served here but it was still alright. I did express some mild wtf-ness when I saw the sauce though – it was just some sweet soya sauce with peanuts and sesame instead of the chilli/five-spice powder/egg sauce that I’m used to but oh well.
Roti Paratha (Bread with curry sauce) ($6). When I first saw the price, I almost bulked as it was more expensive than what other places charge for this dish – hell, you can get it for half the price at Goldan Fork in the city and be stuffed! But seriously, this was one of the best roti’s I’ve ever had. It was very crispy with the right amount of soft flakeyness inside. The sauce wasn’t half-bad either. I wasn’t sure if they made this from scratch or if they’d bought the roti from some supplier but I’m going to guess that they made it because I don’t think I’ve ever seen roti like this in grocery stores before (though if someone is willing to prove me wrong, then by all means do so!)
Chef’s Creation (Fried Vermicelli with seafood, garnished with dried minced shrimp, peanuts and fresh coriander) ($13). This tasted very Thai. It was alright, but it was nothing that your local Thai take-away around the corner cannot do.
Seafood Laksa Lemak ($13). Apparently people come here for their laksa so I chose this particular one because it sounded the most appetising. It had a generous mix of Hokkien and vermicelli noodles with pawns, squid, fishcake and beanshoots. At $13 a bowl, you really can afford to be generous with the servings – not that I expected any less. It was nice but I think that Laksa King on Flemington Road make a much better laksa. And I think they charge only $10 for it too (not 100% sure but it’s definitely less than $13). And plus, their servings are much bigger.
Overall Verdict: It was alright. In the late 1970s, I would’ve lavished heaps of praise over this joint but given that it’s 2008 and the fact that there are heaps of Malaysian restaurants in Melbourne that serve better food, they could do with a bit more work. Having said that though, they have been around for a while and have established themselves in the community as being the first “authentic” Malaysian restaurant in the city, which works wonders for their advertising strategy. And given by the number of people that were there at even 2pm, it looks like they won’t be going out of business for a long long time.