IT TAKES a lot of bravado to set up shop next door to an old Malaysian favourite like Laksa King.
All the more so when you time the opening of your restaurant just days ahead of the established competition’s hyped move to a bigger and swankier premise down the road on Pin Oak Crescent in Flemington.
Laksa King has attracted a loyal following in the past 12 years. Originally located inside the Racecourse Rd arcade, the humble corner shop possessed a sort of old-world charm for the multitudes hungry for a taste of home.
Like the gritty roadside stalls in Malaysia, you were seated elbow to elbow next to strangers united by one common passion: steaming bowls of curry laksa, fish fillet noodles and har mee (prawn noodles).
Predictably, Laksa King had no problems filling up its new home. For several weeks after opening, the establishment pushed the limits of its seating capacity; while the brave new competition benefited from the spillover, as patrons unwilling to queue defected to Chef Lagenda.
After all the fanfare and carnival, we decided to pit the two joints against each other for a taste test.
Our first stop was Laksa King. We settled for the iconic curry laksa and other typical Malaysian hawker fare including the fish fillet noodles, roast chicken rice, belachan kangkong and loh bak; and ventured to try one of the “chef’s specials”, twice cooked pork belly with Chinese herbs.
It really felt like Laksa King had upped its game when our first dishes arrived at the table.
The loh bak’s crispy paper thin beancurd skin encased a juicy pork filling with finely diced water chestnuts which gave it good crunch and texture. And the fish fillet noodles were as we remembered it. The fish was fresh and the noodle broth a milky white served with just the right amount of kiam chye (salted vegetables).
Authentic flavours from home now served in a spacious, modern and clean dining room, what more were we supposed to ask for?
A lot more, it turned out, as the remaining dishes to come were somewhat underwhelming.
Most disappointing of all was the curry laksa, which could be best described as lacklustre. We didn’t find the fragrance in the broth that was what made it so good in the first place, and there was way too much coconut milk.
The roast chicken was dry and overcooked, and the sauce drizzled over the pork belly tasted like plastic.
The belachan kangkong was passable, but we would have liked to retain a little bit more crunch in the stems.
The adage is true. Don’t judge a book by its cover, at least in the case of Chef Lagenda.
The restaurant’s façade – automated sliding door next to a greasy glass window display of roast chickens (which frankly resembled shriveled prunes) – failed to impress. But we were surprised by the staff that greeted us as we entered. Many were familiar faces we recognised from the old Laksa King.
For the sake of comparison, we ordered the curry laksa, Malaysian style roast chicken, belachan kangkong, loh bak and braised pork belly with yam at Chef Lagenda.
We thought the curry laksa was better at Chef Lagenda – the broth was more delicate, and not overpowered by coconut milk.
The roast chicken, crispy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside, was also easily the better contender.
The belachan kangkong and braised pork belly with yam were our favourites.
The kangkong retained its crunch and we got a kick from the heat of the chilli paste. The yam slices wedged between the pork belly was melt-in-your-mouth, and the braising sauce was all as it should be.
The only let down was the loh bak. The beancurd skin was pale and undercooked, and the filling uninspiring.
Speculations about the story behind the new Laksa King and Chef Lagenda aside (we’ve been told the two businesses are independent), Chef Lagenda has certainly punched above its weight as the new kid on the block. Its owner, Ipoh-born Thomas Lee, has worked in kitchens in Malaysia, Taiwan and Melbourne, and Chef Lagenda is Lee’s new venture after his first startup in Richmond in 2003. Head chef Alan Chew was the man behind the Malaysian restaurant Chinta Ria in St Kilda.
To get a bang for your buck, we suggest you head to Chef Lagenda. The food is good, and the prices are more affordable compared to Laksa King. Curry laksa was $8.90 a bowl at Chef Lagenda and $9.20 at Laksa King, and the belachan kangkong was $11.80 at Chef Lagenda and $13.50 at Laksa King. What we found hardest to believe was forking out $18.70 for the chef’s special twice-cooked belly at Laksa King only to pay $8.90 for a much tastier variation at Chef Lagenda. And did we mention you could order a plate of steamed bean sprouts with soya sauce for $1.50 at Chef Lagenda?
But despite the average reviews, Laksa King has by no means lost its crown. What it has shown up are the growing pains of transforming a small business into a big bustling enterprise. The restaurant has taken a bold step in a new direction that has enabled it to expand its clientele to take a lion’s share of the market, but the biggest challenge would be convincing the regulars that their meals are still as homemade as the good old days.