92 Hay street, Haymarket, hojiak.com.au
Main attractions: Home-style Malaysian cooking, made from recipes handed down by chef Junda Khoo's family. Expect modern twists, such as teh tarik affogato and cognac hot chocolate.
Must-try: The lobster indomie goreng. Possibly the most decadent way to eat instant noodle.
Insta-worthy dish: The cognac hot chocolate served in a vintage tea cup, with two deep-fried mantau on the side. It's Ho Jiak's answer to your churros fix.
Drinks: Housemade Malaysian kop/coffee, $5; teh goncang/shaken milk tea, $5; beer, $8, wine by the glass, $8-15.
Prices: Entrees start at $10, while most mains are about $15 (or you can splurge on the fresh mud crab, which is $95 a kilogram).
Ho Jiak is the kind of restaurant you would talk about for days if you ate there on a sunny Penang holiday. Except it's in Haymarket.
That's unlikely to stop you from evangelising to your friends about it, though, because you'll want everyone's help to get through this new home-style Malaysian eatery's gutsy, 16-page menu.
Ho Jiak is the brainchild of chef and owner Junda Khoo and his business partner William Xie. It opened in November last year, and it's their second restaurant of the same name; the first, a smaller, more street food-focused version, launched three years ago in Strathfield.
At the Haymarket outpost, Khoo's vision was to create a menu that celebrates his Nyonya-style family recipes.
"I wanted to to incorporate a lot of hand-down recipes from my family," he says. "That's why on the menu you'll see things like my mum's lap mei fan [preserved meat and rice] or stuffed tofu. Essentially, we took those dishes and refined them to make sure it's restaurant quality," he says.
Khoo's amah (or paternal grandmother) is a huge influence on the food and the aesthetics of the eatery. Ho Jiak is split into two levels: downstairs, the colourful, mural-filled interior is modelled after Lebuh Ah Quee, the busy Penang street where Khoo's grandmother lived, and where he spent most of his childhood while his parents worked. Upstairs is a family-style dining space, with vintage tiled floors, mementos and photos of his grandparents hung on the walls.
As you join the queue of hungry lunchers for a table, you'll sense from the spicy dishes flying out of the kitchen that it's worth the wait. The menu is broadly divided into four sections: entrees, different kinds of protein, signature dishes (where the chilliest specialities live) and favourites (laksa, Hainan chicken and other crowd winners).
First timers should start with the indomie goreng ($15): a punchy, savoury instant noodle stir-fried in onion-infused oil that's topped with a golden fried egg. Khoo recommends breaking the yolk right away and letting it coat the dish, it'll help with the spiciness. For maximum social media envy, opt for the lobster topping. At $33, the addition of sweet Brazilian lobster tail meat is well worth it.
If your tastebuds are still intact from the heat, move on to the house char kway teow. Like the indomie goreng, this is marked with three "dynamite signs" on the menu. Even if you ask the kitchen to turn down the spiciness (a good idea), you'll find your lips tingle from the chilli oil as you blaze through the moreish, garlicky, rice noodles that's spliced with lap cheong slices and wedges of fish cake. It's as thrilling as it's addictive, and by far the restaurant's most popular dish.
For a cool reprieve, the vegetarian pai tee is a refreshing entree that also works well as a side. A tangy salad of julienned jícama (yam bean) is served with crisp, house-made pastry shells and tossed in a sugary, lime dressing. Complete the cool-down with an iced kopi goncang (or shaken milk coffee); the frothy, condensed milk frappe will cure any pain with its intense sugar hit.
Ho Jiak is the kind of place that's meant for multiple visits. You might spy a bowl of thick, steamy king prawn noodle soup half way through a meal, and find yourself coming back the following week for the bouncy egg noodles and its sweet, bisque-like broth.
Or, with a bigger group, you could stray from the street food path and share a few family-style dishes, such as the chilli mud crab with mantau (deep fried buns) or the squid with salted duck egg yolk.
Whatever you do, don't leave without a digestive of cognac hot chocolate. Served in a vintage cup and two miniature mantau, the boozy melted Callebaut chocolate is Ho Jiak's answer to churros. It's the perfect chaser after a big meal. And yes, you'll find yourself going on about it.
IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
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