Hai Onn made it to the top of my to-eat list during my last Penang trip, after repeated reminders from the island quarters of its nostalgic charm, the way real old Penang used to be before it too became all about colossal malls and grotesque "beautification" projects.
We had been warned that service here was notoriously slow, on account of the kitchen & floor team of largely octogenarians, whose pace of life remained staunchly pre-war.
We arrived just a little after noon, hoping to beat the lunch crowd and hopefully keep the waiting time to under an hour. While we waited for the white-haired auntie to shuffle slowly to the back of the kitchen to shout out our orders, the resident Lor Bak stall, already fired up, kept the anxiety & hunger pangs away. The fried tofu cubes were remarkably silky and palatable. A very well-prepared plate of goodies.
To evade Mom's questions about my current love life at the table, I went around checking out the vintage nooks and crannies around the shop. Fittings like these historical electric switches practically commanded a kind of reverential salute.
After about 30 minutes, the Roti Babi arrived. Hai Onn's version was the real deal, packed full of the turnip-carrot-shrooms-and-pork filling heavily accented by five spice. None of the halal sort that you would find at Senior Citizens' or Chinese Recreation Club, the other two places in Penang that immediately came to mind.
Shortly after, the Chicken Chop arrived, the crunchy egg batter languishing in simmering gravy. The sight of this excited me to no end, but to be perfectly honest, the taste hardly justified the wait or the anticipation. This was rather colourless as a dish, the gravy plain starchy and paltry.
Same deal with the Pork Chop which featured tough, overcooked, underseasoned pork tenderloin and same monotonous gravy. We discussed our disappointment later and figured that the simple taste of yesteryears probably got hopelessly lost on our spoilt and over-fostered tastebuds, much like the haphazard development blueprints for the island. Either that or the octogenarians are losing it!
The Hokkien Char looked handsome, but again tasted as dull as hospital food. Struggled to finish this and eventually gave up.
The Sambal Kangkung was the only dish that arrived with too much flavouring. In fact, it was wayyyy too spicy and salty that it ended up a nice pairing to the weak noodles.
Despite being a generally mediocre meal, I was glad to have paid a visit. I hope it sticks around for generations to come, if only to remind Penang what potential it once had, as the rest of the island sinks into utter disrepair playing catch-up.