Confession time: I'm not into innards.
Yes, it's true -- I've lived in Asia for a while now, and that includes a few years in China and Hong Kong (before it was China), where innards indisputably rule. Oh, I do love a good pate -- goose or chicken liver, smooth and silky or chunky "country" style all suit me fine. And I don't mind gizzards (finely chopped enough to be unidentifiable, please) gracing my gravy boat. But until now I've been squeamish about organ meat, unable to stomach stomach, gut shy of intestines and tripe.
But last Saturday, in this open-air eatery in a funky little town on the outskirts of KL, I breached the barrier, I conquerered my fear.
Dave and I hooked up one-ish with fellow hearty eaters SW and SL. SW had been extolling the virtues of the specialty of this house, la tang (lit. "spicy soup" -- sup pedas in Malay), for months (SL even brought along a soup pot to hold a hefty takeaway for the relatives). The dish's name gives nary a clue to its contents: pork and chicken, mushrooms if you like, white pepper, and lots of guts. I knew this going in, but I felt compelled to give guts one more chance. One whiff from the tiny kitchen and I was at ease, feeling entirely up to the challenge ahead. Why? I don't know. I guess I just had a gut feeling about the place.
Innards aren't the only thing on this Hakka restaurant's menu. In addition to la tang for 3, we ordered drunken prawns (actually not on the menu, but always available by request), choi sum stir-fried with oyster sauce, and chicken cooked with dark soy and fateu (otherwise known as Shaoxing wine). All except the vegetable arrived bubbling away in the heavy, one-handled clay pots they'd been cooked in.
The slightly sweet and very sticky chicken was an easy hit. Tender bone-in chunks were thickly coated in a goo tasting pleasantly, but only lightly, of wine. They were especially delightful eaten with the many thick slices of ginger that lurked on the bottom of the pot, thoroughly impregnated with sauce and cooked long enough to become limp. Chopped Chinese celery added a welcome hit of bitterness.
"Drunken" is a concise description for anything that's been boiling in a bath of pure alcohol, as these prawns were.
The medium-sized, meaty specimens were expertly boiled, not a hint of dryness. Shaoxing and lots and lots of ginger matchsticks, perhaps a dash of white pepper -- I'm willing to bet that this dish's broth consisted of nothing else. A bit too sweet and flat-out boozy for slurping, perhaps, but it provided a fine soak for the shellfish.
As a bona fide lover of all things green, I give this plate of choi sum an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Leaves separated from stalks, both stir-fried with oyster sauce (not too much, just enough to lend the perfect amount of salinity) and garlic until just yielding to the bite, sprinkled with caramelly fried shallots -- a vegetable as lovely to taste as it looked on the plate.
As scrumptious as the other dishes were, I must say that the unabashed star of this meal was the soup.
In addition to stomach and intestines, this brew contained chunks of free-range chicken, pork, sliced liver, bits of preserved cabbage, thickly sliced ginger, dense clumps of shimeji mushrooms (the white blob above), and enough white pepper to leave a sandy residue at the bottom of the clay pot.
In truth, neither the taste of intestines nor of stomach figured prominently in the soup; liver was nearly undetectable. But all three added a wonderful textural mix that, if excluded, would have resulted in a different -- and inferior -- experience. White pepper was the deliciously dominant flavor note of this la tang. Truly innards to warm your innards -- the rich broth of this soup tingled all the way down.
As we were smacking our lips and wiping our mouths, SW produced a box of glistening egg tarts.
Rich, smooth, and eggy (characteristics that are, sadly, not to be taken for granted in an egg tart) custard encased in srumptiously flaky pastry. After four dishes we definately didn't need these. But we made room.
All in all one of the finest lunches I've had in weeks. I've yet to eat my way through KL's other innard offerings, but I would wager that the la tang at this place is (are you ready?) -- a gut above the rest.
La Tang in Seri Kembangan (Follow the expressway to Seramban, get off at Seri Kembangan exit. Continue following signs to SK, and once you're in the town keep to the right. At the small red and yellow McDonald's golden arches sign in the median -- which also advertises an "equine water park" -- turn right. The first left will lead to the la tang shop at the end of the road). 9am-3pm and 6-9pm. Closed Monday.
Egg tarts from Tong Kee Bros. Confectionary, 16 Jalan Brunai Utara, Pudu (KL) or 8 Lorong Brunai 3, Pudu.