Zhongguo Hua Tuoguan sits in a part of Kuala Lumpur I think of as 'Little China'. Changkat Thambi Dollah Street is home to a Taiwanese snack shop, a sometimes authentic Sichuan restaurant (and its competitor in the lajiao stakes just across the street), and a shopfront that turns out wonderful renditions of homestyle dongbei (northeastern Chinese) cuisine. This area seems to be a magnet for Mandarin-speaking recent immigrants to Malaysia. So much so that sometimes it reminds me of China, without the spitting.
The restaurant's entry, with its two golden urns of 'Herbal 24 Cooling Tea' displayed front and center, is hard to miss. Yet as often as we find ourselves in this part of KL, we'd never given the place a second glance ... until a hand-lettered sign hawking nyonya asam laksa showed up on the sidewalk out front. Despite our residence in the country that laksa built (or is it the other way around?) we're just not getting enough of these exquisitely chewy rice noodles in our diet, so the placard drew us in.
ZHT's interior might have been the work of a split personality. The low lighting, miniature Chinese lanterns, jars of medicinal herbs and teas displayed on wall shelves, and soothing, days-gone-by Chinese music tinkling in the background are reminiscent of a Hong Kong-style Chinese teahouse. Faux bamboo 'roofing' over the prep station and leaf-wrapped Hainan zongzi (glutinous rice dumplings) suspended over crock pots of congee, laksa soup, and coconut curry suggest a more rural setting.
Living up to its self-billing as 'The Specialist in Herbal Health Care', ZHT offers a long list of herbal teas (in addition to the '24 Cooling', there's Guiling Herbal Powder) and tonics (wild ginseng and snow frog), in addition to 'Light Meals" (fried glutinous rice Hong Kong style, shen xian porridge) and desserts (we'll get to that later).
Asam laksa purists will no doubt be disappointed with this bowl. Though plenty asam (sour) and spicy, the soup is light on the shreds of fish that give the dish its characteristic body, and the chunks of fish mounded on top of the noodles appeared to be canned mackerel or some such.
But those with a tolerance for canned piscene products, who are willing to set preconceptions aside and recognize this version for what it is (asam laksa prepared by a non-specialist in a restaurant focused on Hong Kong-style snacks and drinks), will delight in the toothsome noodles drowned in surprisingly zippy broth, topped with shreds of cucumber and sweet pineapple, red onion slices, and fragrant mint leaves. ZHT's sambal is no slouch either, with a nice hint of sweetness playing off its fiery pounded chilies. When I next crave asam laksa I might not head to ZHT, but when I next find myself at one of ZHT's tables I may well order the asam laksa.
Chicken and mushroom chee cheong fun (rice noodle rolls) are delectable, if a bit over the top, following on the heels of a full bowl of laksa. Slivers of black mushroom and tender filaments of chicken breast shredded right to the fiber top a generous bowl of wide noodles doused with red coconut curry. The tongue-tingling curry's coconut cream count is high, very high, making this one lusciously lemak (fatty/creamy), but awfully filling, bowlful.
Desserts -custards and herbal jellies, displayed in a refrigerated case to one side of ZHT's entry -should not be missed. Corn custard, a firmish (and unphotogenic) golden square is the absolute essence of sweet corn, boosted by eggs and a bit of sugar. It's taken me a decade or so of eating in Asia to come around to the idea of corn as a dessert ingredient, but this treat makes it seem intuitive.
Kudos to ZHT's superb steamed egg custard, jiggly and silky and light as a cloud.
Capped with a thickish, glassy skin that miraculously disappears when a spoon breaks its surface, this custard is all about the egg - or, more precisely, the yolk. A spoonful shows nary a trace of vanilla, and sugar is kept to a minimum. I've enjoyed more than a few memorable panna cotta, creme brulee, pot de creme, and plain old puddings in my time, but in terms of texture (that is, non-texture) and simple, unfettered eggy lusciousness, this delight beats them all. We'll be returning for this one.
Zhongguo Hua Tuoguan (Mandarin), Changkat Thambi Dollah (2 blocks behind Berjaya Times Square and the Imbi monorail station), Kuala Lumpur. Look for the white building with red signage, sandwiched by Fong Wah Teowchow Porridge on the left and Restoran Sri Pudu Nasi Kandar on the right. Open 10am-1am everyday. A very full meal for two (2 bowls of laksa, 1 chee cheong fun, 2 desserts, and 2 iced teas) about 30 ringit.