The Internet doesn’t offer much information about KL’s latest social club, Soon Heng, except for an eye-catching, old-school signage on their Instagram. It’s the only clue that leads customers to this overwhelmingly popular underground venture run by brothers Jack and Larry Chang who are 23 and 25 years old respectively.
Retro signage, which has served as backdrops for bustling old coffee shops and rooftop romance, embodies a nostalgic charm, and Soon Heng’s is no exception. Jack and Larry acquired the signboard from an antique collector in Kajang, who obtained it from a Chinese kopitiam owner. The collector wasn’t keen on selling the signage at first because he thought buyers wouldn’t appreciate the meaning behind it, which loosely translates as “smooth and auspicious” in Cantonese.
After befriending Jack and Larry, and discovered that they were putting it to good use, the collector relented and sold it to them. Now, “Soon Heng” is proudly displayed on the doorway in the brothers’ social club, ushering “auspicious business” just like the signage had promised.
“We didn’t have a name for this experimental side job [the social club] at first. This signage came at the right time,” says Jack, the Sunway Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef responsible for the kitchen at Soon Heng, which started its operations in March.
For the uninitiated, the “restaurant” is easily overlooked since it’s tucked away in an inconspicuous location, which will only be revealed a few days prior to your dining reservation. The owners admitted that many neighbours and diners stole curious glances, which makes the hide-and-seeking all part of the fun.
However, your perception of the social club changes once you’re finally through the door. Larry, the manager and bartender, will usher to you to the dining area, decked out with salvaged items from antique shops such as ornate lamps, lanterns and a Chinese screen embellished with shells. As if entering a time warp, you’re surrounded by all kinds of childhood paraphernalia, from tikam-tikam boards, card games and packet snacks. Walls are festooned with neon signs and a young Rosamund Kwan poster, paying tribute to Hong Kong’s dreamlike cityscape and imagination.
“This is our customers’ favourite corner. They can put money in here and layan sendiri,” Larry points to the games corner with a metal bucket hanging overhead. “You can see the joy on their faces. They’re instantly reminded of their childhood memories and primary school times.”
Larry didn’t start out in the F&B industry at first. Previously a tattoo artist, the graphic designer teamed up with Jack, who travelled from Butterworth – their hometown – to study culinary in KL five years ago. The duo wanted to bring the tenacious attitude of Penang cooking to KL’s dining scene, which is now overrun by a café culture that has become drably homogenous. More importantly, they wanted to create a hideaway where customers can dine and take a break from their screens.
“A lot of cafés spend a lot of money on renovation, décor and display. A few months later, they close down and reopen again. It’s a vicious cycle. What keeps customers coming back is the food and service, not just the interior,” says Jack, who enjoys experimenting with flavours and reinventing local food. The restaurant currently serves a three-course menu with a monthly rotation of appetisers, mains and desserts.
Jack may be trained in Western culinary but his commitment to local food through Soon Heng has proven to be more than a trend. His voice grows more animated with every mention of his favourite Penang dishes.
“I love duck meat noodle soup, loh mee and hokkien mee, which is what you call prawn mee in KL. Penang hawker food holds a standard that’s unmatched anywhere else because the chefs are very particular about the way their food is prepared. If a soup needs to be boiled for eight hours, it has to be eight hours. The flavours are incomparable. A lot of chefs these days are very commercial-minded. Some of them cook sauces straight out of a packet. Customers are very discerning these days. They will know if you take the easy way out. That’s why we only use quality ingredients because we want the best flavours. We want to give it a 100%.”
The same attention to detail has been given to Soon Heng’s outing at Tiffin food court this weekend, which will see some familiar but elevated offerings from their current menu. The first dish is The Malaysian Roti, which comprises toasted garlic bread with artisanal kaya and butter, followed by a chicken and duck dish inspired by the Chinese phrase “gai tong ngap gong” – a slang used to reference individuals who have a hard time communicating with each other.
“In Penang, there’s a very old kopitiam that serves really good coffee and Hainanese toast. Because it’s Merdeka week, I want to showcase a very Malaysian menu. Encased within our crusty toast is a satay-marinated chicken, paired with kaya and a sprinkling of toasted peanuts. A layer of torched mozzarella adds a savoury note to this fusion dish.
“As for the second dish, we’re making a loh bak, baba nyonya style. The nyonya version in Penang has more depth of flavour and it’s usually made with pork. For Tiffin, I have replaced the meat with chicken and duck. The latter, being a red meat, has a slightly more intense flavour and fat content.”
To the Soon Heng brothers, dining is more than just sustenance but instead, a kind of rolling party where people who hardly knew each other fill their little hideout with conversation and good cheer. An informal setting encourages repose, and their familiar Malaysiana-themed décor takes away the nervousness of dining in a foreign place because everyone has something they could relate to.
Although we didn’t get a chance to dine at Soon Heng yet (because reservations are full until October), we can already imagine the convivial buzz filling the restaurant as conversation burbles while food are being whisked to the table. Offering something new to jaded diners, Soon Heng adds a dash of intrigue to the once-routine act of going out to dinner.