A taste of nostalgia

In Johor Baru, we have a coffeeshop culture where friends get together for a chat over a cup of brewed coffee in their favourite kopitiam or coffeeshop, at any time of day.

Poster with menu at entrance to
Hua Mui, a kopitiam that has been opened since 1946,
While coffee franchise chains and chic little cafes rapidly invaded the city, Hua Mui restaurant remains a favourite for fans of their coffee and cuisine.  Ask anyone who grew up in JB about Hua Mui and they will agree that this landmark double-storey kopitiam at the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Dhoby is a must-go destination when they are back in their hometown.

Opened in 1946 and originally run by the Chiang family, the early clientele at Hua Mui must have been mainly European government officers, their friends and families.  Its strategic location, just walking distance from the then State government administrative offices in the Sultan Ibrahim building, made Hua Mui a popular destination.  That’s because this Hainanese family-run coffeeshop had a menu of western and local cuisine that delighted generations of expatriates who were based in JB up to the early 1960s.

Hua Mui is a landmark at the corner of Jalan Trus
and Jalan Dhoby in the heart of old Johor Baru
At that time, restaurant air-conditioning was still rare and Hua Mui was cooled by natural ventilation through wide open doors and windows on two sides of the building.  As was the trend in those days, tables were designed in wooden booths that lined one wall upstairs while the dining hall was furnished by marble-top tables. When the European era was over, Hua Mui continued to attract a regular clientele of government officers, lawyers and bankers as their preferred place to dine and entertain.

The colonial charm in Hua Mui continues to be a magnet that still draws retirees and locals today.  So if you arrive at peak dining hours, don’t be surprised to find the place packed with diners enjoying their local brew, breakfast or lunch.  While the management may have changed and the menu redesigned into a café concept, traditional fare like local coffee, kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs, Hainanese chicken chop and stir-fried rice and noodles, are keeping a loyal clientele coming back for more.

It Roo Cafe is renowned for its Chicken Chop!
As new generations are exploring the heart of old JB, they are introduced to the charm of the Hua Mui experience.  For a start, it is probably the only double-storey traditional kopitiam in the city.  What a thrill it is to climb the wooden staircase – which creaks with every step – with its wooden banister, worn smooth by thousands of diners who have trekked up and down these very same stairs!

Another distinctive feature in Hua Mui must be its dumbwaiter that conveniently lifts and lowers dishes through an air-well between the two levels.  You can take a peek at this useful contraption from the upper level as it lowers into a concealed section downstairs.

A serving of grilled, boneless Chicken Chop at It Roo Cafe
The nostalgic charm of a traditional kopitiam-turned-café continues a few steps up Jalan Dhoby at It Roo Café which in 2003, earned the enviable reputation for serving the Best Chicken Chop in Town.  Opened in 1961 at the corner of Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Pahang, this cosy café can be a tad claustrophobic even if you don’t mind sitting back-to-back with other diners.  But there is also an outdoor section for alfresco dining.

Their classic Hainanese Chicken Chop was then considered a sophisticated meal that met the taste of European diners who were in search of good western cuisine here.  The tender, boneless Chicken Chop is offered in a choice of either fried or grilled, topped with mushroom or black-pepper sauce, served with a side of fried potatoes wedges and coleslaw.

The tight squeeze in It Roo Cafe does not deter regulars
who are after a taste of nostalgia here!
Their own-recipe sauces are uniquely tasty and even the black-pepper sauce is not too spicy for youngsters to enjoy.  If you are a fan of potatoes, here you can taste its fluffy flavour, are cut from fresh potatoes and prepared in traditional methods, handed down from Hainanese cooks of a bygone era.

Now there may be other cafés in the city that serve good chicken chop but these two familiar outlets – Hua Mui and It Roo – remain the first choice of locals who are firm fans of their food.  Maybe it’s not just about the food but the whole experience of coming home to a taste of nostalgia in the heart of Johor Baru.

Restoran Hua Mui, No. 131 Jalan Trus, Johor Baru, is open daily from 8am to 6pm while It Roo Café, No. 17 Jalan Dhoby, Johor Baru, is open daily from 11am to 10pm.
Both restaurants use ingredients sourced from Halal suppliers.

A version of this was published in TheIskandarian.com on 19 April 2016

Next exciting episode: Discovering Jalan Dhoby

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