Word-of-mouth is extremely powerful, and for Bib Gourmand restaurant Wong Mei Kee, word has it that chef-owner Wong Peng Hui, who is 65 years old, has been dishing out the best siew yoke (roasted pork) in Kuala Lumpur, if not, the whole Malaysia, for over thirty years now. He has been dubbed the Maestro Roast Master for good reason.
Wong Mei Kee is located at the heart of Kuala Lumpur, where parking is notoriously difficult, especially during lunch hours. And yet, as our MICHELIN inspectors rightly say it, “this stall attracts foodies in droves for char siew, roast chicken, and the coveted siew yoke." This corner coffee shop with an unassuming storefront does not have any social media platforms, website, or partnerships with food delivery brands because it does not need to. The food speaks for itself.
Imagine this scene: a Thursday morning around 10:30 a.m., a slow trickling of customers is already showing up at Wong Mei Kee to reserve seats. Customers will start lining up patiently at the cashier counter to place their orders around 11:30 am. At 12:30 p.m., Wong will take his stride to the work station. To this day, every order of siew yoke is still hand-prepared and masterfully selected by him before serving to customers. "I will continue to work as long as I am able to. Even after I retire, I will continue to come to work everyday," Wong explains.
The School of Hard Knocks
Locals affectionately refer to Wong as Dato' Siew Yoke. Dato' is an honorary title conferred by the Sultan (king of the state) in Malaysia. Wong's success today was built over forty years by remaining laser-focused on his craft and hardworking ethics.
Wong had a rough start growing up. "I threw my books away the first few days I attended school. From the early days, I knew school wasn't for me," he chuckles.
At 11, he started helping his friends and relatives sell Hainanese chicken rice balls in his hometown of Malacca. "In the 1980s, I left my hometown and came to Kuala Lumpur to look for opportunities," he recollected. After a short stint in Genting Highlands in a Chinese restaurant, he worked at the long-standing Marco Polo restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. It was here where he learned the ropes from the head chef, who guided him and built a foundation for his culinary career.
"I knew I always wanted to start my own business," Wong mused. In 1982, a friend asked whether he was interested in opening a chicken rice stall near where Wong Mei Kee currently is. Wong’s wife, Madame Foo, who previously worked as a banker, supported his first business venture with her initial savings. "Wong is extremely hard working from the get-go. It was one of his attributes that I was attracted to. I poured my first savings into his first stall. Of course, I remembered how much the initial start-up investment was — RM1,300 (around $295)," Foo recalls fondly. And that is how Wong started his first chicken rice stall.
Wong always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Soon, he took over the entire shop and managed other stalls within three months. However, the business was short-lived. When the first modern global financial crisis hit in 1987, Wong had no choice but to give up the business. After short stints of working for others who also sold chicken rice, he started from scratch again in the early 1990s with a humble roadside pushcart selling chicken rice for the next five years.
"We located our cart in front of the coffee shop. Back then, it was an office that occupied this space. When the business folded up, the landlady offered to rent this space to me, and that is how Wong Mei Kee started," he shares.
“Back in the day, a plate of chicken rice was only RM1.20 ($0.30)!”
"The name Wong Mei Kee is a combination of my family name. ‘Mei’ is the name of my good friend and ‘Kee’ means ‘stall’ in Cantonese. It was as simple as that!" Wong shares.
The Secret to making Siew Yoke
Wong can simply tell the difference between meat grades by looking at skin colour and texture. "The best roast pork has a well-balanced fat-to-meat ratio, with the right amount of succulent bites and crispy skin," he says. Wong Mei Kee's roasted pork is like biting into well-marbled meat. "It melts in your mouth," he says, motioning over his throat.
Wong Mei Kee's siew yoke, while appearing simple, is the result of decades of experimenting, trial and error, and learning. "This recipe was entirely developed in-house, not passed down or learned from any chefs or masters. We've thrown away a lot of roasted meat over the years. Due to the temperature sensitivity, there were times when the skin was charred black beyond recognition," he explains. The secret lies in the house-blended five-spice salt mix and roasting method.
Roasting meat is a time-consuming and labour-intensive process. Sixteen slabs of pork are fired over their five enormous charcoal ovens for the next two hours. Wong and his grandson would handpick the charcoals and place them in the ovens, expertly waltzing between the five varying temperature ranges to move the meats around. "Constant attention and care are required to ensure the siew yoke is perfectly roasted. It is arduous labour," Wong shares candidly. The restaurant's char siew, marinated with Wong's own recipe, is also roasted in a charcoal oven, as evidenced by its smokiness.
Wong and his family begin their day at 7 a.m. His trusted supplier of over 30 years delivers about sixteen slabs of pork weighing 7-8 kilos each. "The source of the pork comes from various states, including Seremban, Malacca, Penang, and Ipoh. If the meat does not meet our standards, the supplier will replace them," says Wong.
Wong’s grandson, 23-year-old Wong Cheng Phang, who began working as his grandfather's tutelage at 16, starts preparing the meat every morning. Phang uses a sharp prickling tool to pierce the meat rhythmically, with a consistent sequence, after skilfully trimming it and briefly boiling it in hot water. He then rubs both sides with salt and their secret five-spice salt. When asked what's in the five-spice salt mix, Phang says with a glint in his eye: "It's a secret." Wong would then inspect each piece of meat before placing it in the oven.
A Lifelong Dedication to Culinary Excellence
"I do not wish to expand my menu to do other dishes. Customers requested soup, so we relented and served salted vegetable soup. My extended family supplies that. Every day I come to work, my focus is to keep perfecting my roast meats," Wong expresses.
His dedication and unwavering passion for his craft are akin to Japanese chefs, many of whom spend their lives mastering one dish. His son and grandson are now actively involved in the business.
“I hope to leave a legacy for the next generation, but I'll leave that up to them.”
The Bib Gourmand Accolade
"My wife was more excited than I was," Wong recalls of the Malaysia Bib Gourmand selection. His wife said, "I was seated at the cashier counter, and he was chopping his meat as usual when we received the letter. I nearly jumped out of my chair when I opened it. Of course, we were overjoyed!" she says.
"I knew one day Wong Mei Kee would get its due recognition, and that we would be part of the MICHELIN Guide," Wong shares earnestly. With Wong's dedication to the craft and his passion for perfecting his roast meats, Wong will go down in history as a local culinary icon.
What to Order
A visit to Wong Mei Kee would be incomplete without Wong's iconic siew yoke. To make the most of your experience, order the trio combination meat, which includes char siew, juicy roasted chicken, siew yoke, and a portion of oil rice. Ordering an extra plate of siew yoke is not a bad idea to make your wait worthwhile!