You have to be a hardcore foodie to eat in Jalan Besar.
Not only is there no MRT station close enough for it to claim, it takes a good ten minutes from the station to the main jalan (Malay for "road") besar ("big"). Drivers are made to go in loops on one-way streets and parking is horrendous to secure. Your best bet would be to hop on an Eastside bus.
An official conservation area – with some 540 preserved buildings – Jalan Besar's protected status has resulted in hawkers and restaurateurs being allowed to develop and hone their craft without disruption for many decades. Now boutique shops have started to spring in the nearby Little India area; coffee joint Chye Seng Huat Hardware set up shop along Tyrwhitt Road and modern diner Suprette in boutique hotel Kam Leng Hotel across the road to name a few.
Before the Downtown Line's Jalan Besar MRT station’s launch in 2017 – a move that will likely open the neighbourhood up to higher rental prices and more boutique and brand names in spanking new shopping malls – pull into Jalan Besar’s culinary gems: as it stands, there is such tremendous diversity of good food concentrated in such a small area that our top picks for the area cannot do not do the area justice. We’d be losers for not trying though:
Photo: Gregory Leow
The Beef House
For Hakka delicacies
Hakka delicacies like beef ball bee hoon, yong tau foo, soon kueh (a big steamed dumpling typically filled with chopped turnips, carrots and black fungus) and suan pan zi (Hakka “abacus” seeds) can be found here, though the palm-sized soon kueh ($1 each) and abacus seeds ($2 a plate) regularly sell out by lunchtime. It is clear why when you manage to get orders: instead of a dominance of bang kuang (turnip), more expensive ingredients like bean curd, dried prawns, minced meat, mushrooms, black fungus and onions can be found in the soon kueh that has complex flavour and texture. The soon kueh’s semi-translucent skin, made with tapioca flour and yam, has perhaps gotten thicker over the years but the springy chewy texture still makes for addictive eating. The soft-textured abacus seeds ($2 a plate) meanwhile, are made with a little more yam but still has a springy feel and comes with a generous serving of bean curd, mushrooms and dried prawns.
The Beef House | Address: Gar Lok Eating House, 217 Syed Alwi Road | Opening hours: Mon-Thu, Sat & Sun 8am-5.30pm or until sold out
'Photo: Gregory Leow
For classic Nyonya kuehs
Here lies some of the best classic Nyonya kuehs in this part of town. Their ondeh-ondeh (gula Melaka-filled glutinous rice balls rolled in shredded coconut, five for $2) is our pick; though not perfectly shaped, the slightly firm texture of the glutinous rice dough is soft to the bite, the coconut is freshly grated and unseasoned, and a generous amount of gula Melaka liquid comes flowing out when bitten into. Tip: arrive early as not many are available for sale – a majority of Cambridge Deli’s kuehs are reserved for pre-orders.
Cambridge Deli | Address: Blk 216G, Syed Alwi Road #01-06 | Opening hours: Daily 7am to 5pm
For kopi-o kosong
It is only when you drink Coffee Hut’s kopi o kosong (Malay for “coffee with no milk or sugar”) and compare it with other kaya toast and coffee sellers’ that you get why this stall is held in high regard: there is less of the bitter and sour overtones that is common in local coffee because Coffee Hut uses a higher grade of coffee. Where kopitiam coffees rank, this version can be a bit on the light side, so order the coffee "kao" (strong) for more of that coffee oomph. Also try their kaya baguette which comes light, fluffy and crisp.
Coffee Hut | Address: 166 Jalan Besar #02-43, Berseh Food Centre | Opening hours: Mon-Fri 7am-3pm; Sat & Sun 7am-1pm; Public holidays closed