We're suckers for Malaysian coffee shops. We refer here to the genuine article, mind you, not to any of the cute-ified old style-themed shops that have popped up around Kuala Lumpur in the last few years. The latter may be squeaky clean and air-conditioned, and some serve a good cup of local brew, but they don't come with the layers of history and the retinue of characterful regulars that places like Penang's Toon Leong do.
This year is Toon Leong's seventy-first in business. The shop is known for its coffee and coffee powder, sold by the kilo. A sign on the wall behind the check-out counter proudly proclaims, 'The Best Coffee Powder Sold Here Retail.'
Time seems to have passed Toon Leong by. It's not listed in Rasa Rasa Penang, a locally-produced, meticulously detailed guide to the island's hawker and restaurant food. And on a Sunday morning it is not particularly busy. Its nasi kandar stall is doing a somewhat steady business, and a noodle vendor serves up a bowl here and there. Next to the noodle cart, the Hainan chicken rice stall is closed up.
Most of the customers are regulars of a certain age nursing a pot of tea or a cup of coffee. Toon Leong's owner is delighted when Dave takes out his camera (we're here courtesy of our knowledgeable taxi driver, Mr. Goh). We're never sure what the reaction to photographing will be in places like this - sometimes folks scowl, other times they laugh. Here, today, smiles all around. As Dave sets up his tripod at the shop's entrance the owner hurries behind the service counter and strikes a pseudo-casual pose, back straight and face to the lens (you can just make him out above, to the left), as customers gently razz him.
We wonder what will become of Toon Leong. The shop is brilliant, occupying a lovely colonaded corner unit that catches cooling cross breezes. Booths and tables are well-placed for prime street-watching. The owner's son, who looks to be in his fifties, helps out at the shop, and perhaps he'll keep things going after it passes to his hands. Or perhaps not - there are so many other old-style coffee shops in Penang, and most of them are packed with busy hawker stalls and crowded with customers jostling for tables from early morning to closing. How long can this little gem subsist primarily on the sale of coffee powder? Or, maybe Toon Leong sells so much coffee powder that it needn't place a priority on famous hawker fare.
Toon Leong's coffee? Delicious: dark, thick, and fragrant - and packing a hell of a punch. The best, perhaps, in all of Penang.
Toon Leong Coffee Shop, Jalan Transfer at the intersection with Jalan Argyle, Penang. Early morning to mid-afternoon.