Makansutra: Joo Heng Restaurant's legacy remains strong
Joo Heng Restaurant still special after his passing
The founder of Joo Heng Restaurant died six years ago at the age of 77, but his legacy lives on.
I remember Mr Soon - or "Ah Chai" - once told me that the best cooks he hired were the "gamblers, smokers and drinkers", but that was another era.
Customers would come to his restaurant, look out for and be served by him.
He had a friendly demeanour, would run at least 5km each day, and every other month, compete in a marathon somewhere in the world.
His son, Mr Soon Kay Lock, has been helping in the family kitchen for decades and now helms it with three cooks. He says his father is still missed.
"Customers come, take a look, do not see him, and move on," he said with a shrug.
Joo Heng used to occupy two units on Joo Chiat Road for over a decade, but the crowds began to thin after his father's passing and the restaurant had to close one unit.
Kay Lock added that the rent at the other unit was also getting too high for comfort.
He pops out of the kitchen occasionally to say hello and take orders from regulars, while his wife and a couple of helpers now run the show.
The last time I visited was when the senior Mr Soon was still buzzing about, and now I wanted to check out how they have carried on from where he left off.
Restaurants offering this collection of local Cantonese-inspired flavours are few these days.
The likes of Sik Bao Sin and Joo Heng still offer very similar items fronted by the iconic steamed carp fish head with bean sauce topped with crispy lard croutons, alongside familiar favourites like steam meat patty with salted fish, prawn paste chicken, double boiled soups and prawn tofu.
I had to rediscover as much as I could, and the Steamed Fish Head ($22) was as I remembered - fresh and with the "fishiness" removed, covered in a local miso/plum sauce with lard, spring onions and chilli.
I am reminded of the pleasures of a "rice meal" - every item has to be paired with fluffy white rice.
The Steamed Baby Squid ($15) was another favourite, done just right (oversteam it and it'll turn rubbery) with a chilli, soy, sesame and oyster sauce.
Their signature greens are the Sambal Sweet Potato Leaves ($12), which come gently spicy and saucier than before.
All that sauce was magic again with the rice.
I took the Sesame Chicken with ginger ($16) and it came juicy and crisp, the sesame and ginger very agreeable, with a subtle flavour.
Of course, I had to tear into the Steamed Minced Pork Patty ($12).
The meat was hand-chopped and softer than I liked, but the soft Nam Heong salted fish atop was the deal sealer.
Not once did I look out for Ah Chai to swing by and ask if all's well. His legacy remains. Welcome back into my life, Joo Heng.
Joo Heng Restaurant
360 Joo Chiat Road
Opens 11am to 2pm, 5pm to 10pm; closed Mondays
K.F. Seetoh, the founder of Makansutra, dabbles in street food businesses like Food Markets and has his own TV shows on cable. He publishes food guides and online content. He is also the creator of the World Street Food Congress. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
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