Singapore Food Challenge Episode 2 – Eateries & Dining Houses

I set myself a food challenge since I had a few days back in Singapore. Try tasty food from as wide a spectrum as possible, all of which must come from new stalls, eateries, cafes or restaurants to me. Rather than go chornologically I decided to cluster the individual experiences according to the establishment. Today – food from eateries and dining houses.

You’d expect the price of the food from an eatery to be more expensive, and you would be wrong. Now that was a surprise.

In the first episode, I looked at food from hawker centres, this time around I have compiled food from eateries, hawkers who made some good business with their stalls and then bought a space for their own dining establishment.

One of the benefits of an eatery is that there is usually slightly more comfort when you dine, for example all these examples below were air-conditioned which is a huge life-saver in the suffocating Singapore heat. Eateries also tend to sell more than one product, unlike hawker stalls that tend to have one (or a handful) of more outstanding products. However, a drawback of an eating house is that your options are limited to what they sell and not the myraid of choices that a food centre opens up.

Still, if someone sells an amazing food item, does it matter that there are lesser food stalls around?

Liao Fan Hawker Chan @ Smith Street

It took me almost two years to finally come around to visiting this place. Not for anything, just simple nonchalance.

It was nice to hear that a stall won a prize, but I wasn’t too sure I craved so much that Michelin-dining experience (I don’t think I care enough for Mr Tires) to bother with the queue. To many Singaporeans, the list on the Michelin Guide looked suspect, more like a marketing ploy than a real attempt at understanding Singaporean cuisine – I had tried another hawker dish that was to later be awarded a star but did not come away too impressed, the star restaurants were typically overboard on price and overly biased to French options and the Bib Gourmand suggestions seemed to be limited to where the inspectors hotels were located.

But I was in Singapore this time for the tourist experience so what the heck, I decided to bring my parents down to try it with me.

Googling the stall on the way down brought up extremely mixed reviews. Some, mostly Singaporeans, panned the place for being a sell out and for sliding standards, others thought it was great. One popular channel of Singaporean vloggers for example thought the dish was poor,while another thought the dish was amazing. Then there was this American food vlogger who thought it was great.

I happened to think it was really good. Then again, while most Singaporeans think 328 Laska is really good, while I think Janggut Laksa is where the flavour’s at so what do I know.

Strictly speaking, I did not visit the actual Michelin stall, which is still located in the adjacent food centre, we visited the air conditioned eatery (hence the placing of this eatery in this post) which was awarded a Bib Gourmand instead. It was hot at the hawker centre, the queue at the hawker centre took much longer and the heat that day was ‘Michelin level’. We needed air conditioning. Chan Hon Meng grew up in a family of farmers who reared pigs, ducks and crops and dropped out of school at the age of 15 arriving in Singapore from Malaysia as a young man to build a career. He began his career by learning his trade from a Hong Kong chef more than 35 years ago, and has had his stall at the food complex since then. Despite the queues at his original stall, the labour intensiveness of the dish meant that there was a limit to how much Chan could have grown his business and a limit to how many chickens he could prepare a day (220-230 a day). He kept his prices low when his competitors raised theirs. All this meant a very meagre and simple life until Mr Tires came calling.

While most people would cash in after winning the award, Chan refused to raise his prices. But lady luck was to find him still. The prize brought with it massive expansion which was solidified when Chan collaborated with a large company that promised to keep prices low – by and large they have kept their promise.

The queue outside the eatery was packed mostly with tourist, we were the occasional local, and everyone came from afar to try this dish. To the credit the queue did not stand still but moved along rather fast. The bigger challenge is getting a seat in the eatery. It is obviously not a place where you sit down and have a nice chat. It was mere an air-conditioned hawker experience – sit, eat, go.

The store won its prize for its soya sauce chicken and noodles. We ordered half a chicken, and a separate order of noodles with Char Siew and dumpling soup. For a combination like this the price came up to SGD 26 (EUR 16.30, USD 19.60), which is an incredible price, it definitely passed the cost test. But what about the quality?

In any dining context or culture dry meat is a cardinal sin. The big challenge facing any chef or cook working with chicken is how to ensure that the breast meat which has the least fat and hence cooks the fastest retains its juicy moisture. In this case, I thought the chefs and trainees at Liao Fan, who cooked under the supervision of the original hawker did their master proud. The breast meat was juicy, not to mention the thing meat and there was a savoury sweetness to the meat.

The other part of the dish that is really important is the noodles. These yellow egg noodles are good when they are soft and chewy – a texture that is commonly referred to as ‘q’. These noodles were ‘q’ and the sauce coated the noodles with sweet savouriness. I thought it was great, and I don’t know many soya sauce chicken stores of this quality (the other one I know is a restaurant that sells things at higher prices). To my tastebuds, the 20 minute queue was worth the wait.

ON THE MAP

A B Mohamed Restaurant @ Serangoon Road

My body clock was still out of whack, it was late afternoon in Singapore and I was famished (having missed breakfast and lunch), but I had dinner to look forward to, so I decided to find something light near where me. My legs took me walking to Serangoon Road, deep in the heart of the Little India district.

Bryani? Too heavy.

Keema Chapati? Too heavy.

Prata? Too heavy.

That’s when I stopped outside AB Mohammad Restaurant. The hawkers with their specific dishes was not what I needed, I needed a good dish that didn’t fill me up entirely so an eatery with many options was bound to turn something up. The restaurant has a long history behind it. It is the baby of Mr AB Mohammad who arrived in Singapore in 1951 at the tender age of 10 and first began his food business in 1978. His store grew popular for its south Indian food – Pratas, Dosas.

Unlike Chan Hon Meng who is a hawker through and through, AB Mohammad was more than a hawker, he was first and foremost a businessman. Food may have been his more successful venture but he has a foot in many businesses – food, logistics, tour & travel, as well as hospitality all run under the umbrella ABM Group. His restaurant is a 24 hour enteperise serving south Indian food at all hours of the day.

And you could tell, it was around 4pm and the display table was already open for a long time, with chefs constantly preparing new things and throwing out colder dishes.

I went for what looked to be the best compromise, a paper thosai (SGD 3.50, EUR 2.20, USD 2.65) as well as a pulled tea (teh tarik, SGD 1.2, EUR 0.75, USD 0.9).

A thosai or dosa is crepe like pancake made of a slightly soury fermented batter and eaten with a mixture of chutneys, sambas and some curries. A paper thosai is one that is thin and flat. Despite its large appearance the soury flavour of the batter means that the dish is lighter and goes down easier. The dosai was a rather good one and the chutney’s were flavourful too. Since I find the quality of thosai to be regularly consistent across the places have tried it, I personally judge a good thosai based on the quality of the accompanying dips. My favourite in this case was the white cocounut chutney, the coconut chutney did however miss out the green mint flavour (that Komala and Saravana Bhavan both had) but it was a good dish nonetheless, and it did its job for my stomach 😉

ON THE MAP

Lucky Chicken Rice @ Lucky Plaza

I was at Orchard Road to get some work done, and was buying some food over to a friend’s place for dinner, I had initially wanted to buy some chicken rice nearer the meeting place but that stall was closed. So I googled around. I wasn’t hopeful, what can you get that’s local and affordable in the main shopping district of Orchard Road? Surprisingly something did turn up. A chicken rice eatery that was actually rather highly rated too. I was skeptical.

Orchard Road stands for Overpriced Randomness. The most well known Chicken Rice along this stretch of road also happens to be the most expensive in Singapore at SGD 31 (EUR 19.60, USD 23.40) per pop. But then, I looked closely at the location, Lucky Plaza. This was the Little Manila of Singapore, and if there is anything that is more afforadable in Orchard Road you would probably find it at Lucky Plaza (or Far East Plaza for that matter).

The eatery was located in a little hidden corner, on the second story of the mall. The eatery looked distinctly old school, seemingly trapped in the 1970s. Was the flavour a 1970s one, I wondered? Humans are funny, 1970s architecture is dated, but 1970s flavour is usually considered traditional and authentic.

I ordered the most basic chicken rice with chicken thigh meat (SGD 5, EUR 3.15, USD 3.77), and boy were we impressed by the standard. Hainanese (there is also a much rarer Cantonese Chicken rice, but that’s not the topic for today) Chicken Rice is fundamentally chicken and rice. Anyone can put together a plate of white rice and chicken, so why is it a staple in Singapore (see other stalls here, here, here, here and here)*?

That’s because good chicken rice, taste heavenly and costs little. There are three components to a good chicken rice, and despite the name, the chicken is merely one among the three, not the star. The rice is the first key component. A mixture of ginger, garlic, shallots and pandan leaves is usually fried i oil before the rice is added with a fragrant chicken broth. This cooked rice is what gives the staple carbohydrate its flavour, so good that sometimes you don’t even need chicken.

The second component is the chili. A good rice cannot become excellent without an impressive chili sauce. Usually made out of fresh chili, garlic, ginger and some citrus the other wise rich dish is now elevated with different layers of flavour from the slight zing and mild heat from the chili.

The third component is the chicken, usually boiled, the chicken needs to have smooth and silky texture and retain its moisture. But chicken is chicken, while the skill of the chef is important the chicken itself has to be of high quality for justice to be done. In terms of skill, the actual technique involved in preparing the rice and chili is arguably more difficult to master than the science of cooking the chicken, as such I would say it is the third component.

In this case, the rice was fragrant and nicely oiled, the chili was zingy but in my view could do with a hint more spice and the chicken was good and meaty. Not the best I’ve had but a very good meal nonetheless.

*I left out arguably the most famous Chicken Rice in Singapore – Tian Tian because I don’t think it needs so much publicity. It already has alot, but here’s the article I wrote about it many years back.

ON THE MAP

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