Pu Yuan isn't hidden, exactly. It's just not well advertised. And the shop's minimalist signage is useless if you don't read Chinese.
Making our way past a few hawker stalls and a cut fruit vendor, we feel many pairs of eyes following our progress. Approaching Pu Yuan's entrace on a narrow sidestreet, we feel as if we're busting into a secret clubhouse.
The door opens onto a low-ceilinged, dimly lit room of maybe 8 or so tables. As we enter, all activity ceases - silence replaces lively conversation, chopsticks hang suspended halfway between plate and mouth, servers carting bowls and plates stop mid-track. Everyone stares. But for just a couple of beats, until the presence of strangers - not just foreigners, but new customers - is duly noted. And then all attention returns to the tasks at hand: cooking, serving, and eating.
Pu Yuan is very old-style.
This Hokkienese eatery has been around, perhaps, longer than Malaysia's been a nation. Grandma hangs out in the back, by the abacus, occasionally venturing into the dining area to take an order and chat with customers. Her daughter and granddaughters wait most of the tables, and her son-in-law mans the kitchen. Herds of gangly little boys come and go through the front door, disappear into the kitchen, and emerge with a snack, quickly downed at an empty table.
Most of the customers apear to have a long history with the place. On our first visit we find ourselves next to a table of four retirees quietly working their way through what seems like every dish on the menu. For how many years have they been taking Saturday lunch at Pu Yuan? 'Too long to remember,' is the response.
A few weeks later we get to talking with a fashionably dressed lady of a certain age, visiting relatives from her home in Australia. 'I grew up in KL,' she tells us, 'and I never miss a visit to Pu Yuan on my trips back. This place hasn't changed since I was a child.'
There's Fujianese dishes aplenty here, but Pu Yuan is most well known for its yam noodles and peh ko. The proprietor's sister makes the former by hand every morning. Her wide, stubby yam strips go all sticky-chewy in a dark soy-soused stir-fry with cabbage, pork, and shrimp. White cabbage, Chinese celery, and pork cracklins add crunch, but the overriding flavor here is a wonderful char from the high-fired wok.
Pu Yuan's peh koh (slices of glutinous rice 'cake' - nian gao in Mandarin) are Shanghai-size, a few inches long and about half an inch wide. They receive essentially the same treatment as the yam noodles, with the addition of thickly sliced fresh shiitake mushrooms, a shower of teeny-weeny cripsy dried shrimp, and, it seems to us, less soy. The texture of these rice cakes is superb: very chewy, verging on springy, somewhat reminscent of knife-cut noodles (dao shao mian) without the slipperiness.
Servings here are substantial and after two noodle dishes we're well stuffed. But in a place like Pu Yuan one shouldn't disregard personal recommendations so, following the lead of the retirees, we order the house's special pig trotters.
A pork lover's dream, these bone-in, skin-on pieces of pig leg arrive in a pool of wonderfully gingery taucu (soybean paste) sauce and are garnished with smooth, almost gelatinous rice cakes. We're told the latter are made from the same dough as the peh ko, but wonder if this can be correct. Whereas the peh ko are firm and chewy, these rice cakes are soft and almost wobbly. Mashed with a spoon, they make a fine carrier of leftover sauce.
Among Pu Yuan's other offerings are steamed fish (popular, judging from its appearance on most tables of 4 or more) and a sweet, ginger-sauced fried chicken.
Pu Yuan, off Old Klang Road (Jalan Klang Lama), Taman Lian Hoe, Kuala Lumpur. Heading south on Old Klang Road towards OUG and approaching Jalan Kuchai Lama, turn left into the small road just before (next to) the post office. Pu Yuan is on the first alley to your left. Morning to evening. Closed Wednesday.