Back in June, Alissa and I dined at Formosa Vegetarian Eating House in Kardinya. During the meal, a regular of the restaurant recommended a dish for us to try. From this chance encounter he later got in touch with me after seeing the Formosa blog post appear on Urbanspoon, eventually sending me an email with a list of places to check out. His good leads resulted in satisfying dinners at Bateman Eating House and Silver Sushi, as well as a few we have yet to get around to. As much a fan of noodles as I am, he sent us a second round of leads in October, informing us that we had to try the Bakmie noodles and Chicken Rice at Ah Mei Cafe.
Located in the Canning Vale Market City complex, Ah Mei Cafe is modelled on the old Peranakan coffee shops of the 60s and 70s that were once common to much of South East Asia.
Although I never grew up in Singapore, my parents did, and through successive holiday visits I have seen coffee shops of this style become rarer, with the few that do survive in heritage areas providing a nice respite from an increasingly sanitised Singapore. Ah Mei is filled with iconography that recalls an earlier age - from typical tiled surfaces and patterns right through to the bottles, jars and cans of products displayed lovingly above their dedicated noodle making room and kitchen. The fact that this place had its own noodle making room was a good sign of things to come; with ramen joints like Nao and the bamboo pole noodles at Noodle Forum, the art of making noodles is definitely alive and well in Perth.
Similar to dim sum restaurants and Pinchos in Leederville, ordering is made by filling out an order sheet. Looking at the form, Alissa and I were impressed with the very affordable prices - there is not a dish about $13, and a plain Prata can be had for as little as $5! People who complain there is no such thing as a cheap meal in Perth need to head out to the suburbs more often...
As an entree, Alissa and I decided to share a serve of Chicken Curry Prata. The Chicken Curry was tasty, made in the thinner Southern Indian-inspired style common to Singapore. This is the kind of curry I used to eat before my parents started going to India and really got into doing true Northern-style curries. While I prefer the opulent curries of Northern India as well as the complex curries of Thailand, this was a good example of this style. Unfortunately the Prata was a bit less impressive. Prata in Southern India and at its best in Singapore is cooked slowly, with many air pockets creating little reservoirs in which the runnier consistency of southern curry can be caught. This style often appears a broken up mess on the plate, but it all makes sense when you dip it in and the curry is scooped up - see for example the style served at Rapsy Restaurant in Munnar. The flat Prata served here was not able to catch the curry in this same way, making it less impressive than it could have been.
Fried Wantons served as our second entree, and were very nice examples of this classic - better than some I've had in Singapore. The crunchiness was impressive, and tasted well fried in clean oil. Compared to Noodle Forum, these were a bit generic, but were a very good example of this standard take on the Fried Wanton. Alissa and I agreed that Noodle Forum is the Rolls-Royce when it comes to noodle joints, but this was pretty good when compared to other competitors.
Alissa had been craving some Hainanese Chicken Rice, and thus went with Ah Mei's version of this classic dish served with Roast Chicken instead of Steamed Chicken. The Chicken Rice itself was nicely seasoned, and was not overly oily as some Chicken Rice can be. Personally, I prefer a Chicken Rice that is just a tad bit more oily and tastes like some rendered chicken grease was used in the cooking, however this was a good example of a lighter style. The chicken itself was the most notable part of the dish, with a nice roasted meat flavour without the meat being dried out; I've had better rice at other places, however the meat held up with some of the best. To finish it off, the broth tasted clean and MSG-free while the chilli was good if not particularly remarkable. This was a dish of good simple flavours done well.
My order of the Bakmie Special was easily the best and most deluxe dish of the evening. The house made noodles had a nice springiness to the them, and were made in the slightly thicker ramen-like gauge that seems to be the standard in places specialising in house made noodles. The Meat Balls had a nice spongy texture and lean meat flavour that was better than the meat balls served at Kitchen Inn (another nearby handmade noodle specialist). The mince on top was very flavoursome and complex, and reminded me of the turkey stuffing my Peranakan Aunty makes for Christmas. Additional Fried Wantons were a welcome crunchy addition, as were the fried shallots sprinkled on top. For me, the sauce Kitchen Inn served with their Kampua noodles is superior if more fatty, as that dish has the magical unctuousness of pork fat for added flavour. The Bakmie here was decidedly leaner and cleaner. Both styles have merit, and while the Kampua has it beat tastewise, I felt that the Bakmie could be eaten with a lot less guilt and with only a minor reduction in enjoyment.
The Verdict: Very Good
Alissa and I enjoyed our meal at Ah Mei Cafe. We really appreciated their dedication to bringing back the spirit of the coffee shops of the 60s and 70s, as well as their clean, light takes on Nonya classics. The Bakmie was a particularly delicious dish, making the restaurant a worthy addition to Perth's growing scene of handmade noodle specialists and another noodle joint to add to our noodle eating rotation. With Hor Fun and Laksa dishes that we have yet to try and second branch in Waterford, Alissa and I will definitely be back for more.