Singapore's Chinatown has been getting a serious facelift in the past years. Modern bars, restaurants and a (redesigned) concept Food Street (Smith Street) are burgeoning in the neighbourhood. The downtown area has become our new favourite spot for late night drinking. Besides, what’s better than to start off the night than with some local tze char with the varied punters in the area? Plus you can save the bucks for another round of beer later. Here are some of our favourite tze char restaurants in Chinatown and their 'must-orders':
Tong Ah Eating House| Many know Tong Ah for its perfectly crisp kaya toast ($1.40), half-boiled eggs ($1.20) and coffee ($1.30) – all of which were had been featured in New York Times. But ask for their menu and you will be amazed by the great variety of tze char dishes churned out at their back kitchen. Coffee pork ribs (small $10, medium $12, large $15) has a kopi-o (coffee) -like glaze; crispy on the outside and fork tender and fatty inside. The same goes for the claypot fragrance chicken ($10/$12/$15) – crisp, juicy and sweet, but with extra kick of dried chillies. A unique dish that is not listed in their menu is the salted egg yolk string beans ($10/$12/$15): each string bean is coated in salted egg yolk batter and stir-fried with curry leaves, rendering the beans lightly crisp on the outside an meltingly tender on the inside. Tong Ah has recently moved from its previously iconic triangle corner to this new spot a couple of doors down on Keong Saik. Go there in the early evenings and grab one of the very few tables available outdoor and enjoy the backdrop of iconic shophouses and Pinnacle@Duxton as the sun goes down.
Yuet Loy| Yuet Loy opens for lunch and dinner, but do note that their opening hours are fairly short. Their famous beef hor fun ($6/$13/$16) sells out quickly. But of course – the wok hei on the rice noodle adds depth to flavourful gravy and the slices of beef are not over tenderised. Another signature, the golden coin tofu (90 cents per piece) tastes like a mash between taupok (beancurd puff) and silken tofu, a great combination of texture and with a nice addition of crunchy bean sprouts. The salted fish chicken ($11/$14/$16) is juicy, savoury and has that umami flavour from the salted fish, a comforting dish that goes great with rice. Don’t be fooled by the pale-looking dishes, Yuet Loy's food are heavy in flavours. If you need to wash that down, order dishes here and walk to the other corner of this hawker centre to the Good Beer Company or the newly opened Smith Street Taps for a wide range of beer.
Woh Hup| Unlike many other stalls at Hong Lim Food Centre which cater to the lunch office crowd, Woh Hup is one of the few that open in the evening. It has the whole corner to itself, which means more seats. They offer Cantonese cuisine and do steamed dishes exceptionally well. The steamed baby squid ($10/$12/$15/$18) are not overcooked, and tender as a result. The bed of egg has a subtle saltiness and a kick from chilli padi, ginger and spring onions. The sauce turns slightly purple as you eat, from the squid ink, adding an umami element to the dish. Even their sambal kang kong (morning glory, $6/$8/$10) is done well, with the stems still crunchy when served and moreish with the chilli bean sauce. A few other signature dishes are listed on their board, the simple fried chicken ($10/$12/$15/$18) is a great snack to go with beer.
Kok Sen Restaurant | Kok Sen Restaurant is another icon on Keong Saik Road, and it got its status from being here for almost half a century now. They do classic, simple yet comforting Cantonese tze char dishes. A must-try here is their signature big prawns hor fun (flat rice noodles in gravy, $14/$28/$42). The rice noodles is first stir-fried to give it a good wok hei flavour, then slathered with gravy that is peppery, robust with bits of ginger, spring onion and laced with egg. It reminds us of chilli crab sauce, but less sweet. Another dish that appears on almost every table is the claypot yong tau hu (claypot filled with tofu and ingredients stuffed with fish paste, $13/$19/$26): simple homemade yong tau hu stir-fried in thick, brown black bean gravy and served sizzling hot. For something spicy, opt for the kum heong fish belly ('golden fragrance' fish belly, $13/$19/$26) where tender, flaky and crispy fish belly chunks are stir-fried with dried shrimp and chilli. The lady boss gives great service, makes great recommendations and even makes sure you don’t over-order. A long queue is a common scene, so come early.
An Ji | There are many stalls in Chinatown Complex that offer the steamed Song fish head ($13) in hot sauce or the Hong Kong-style black bean sauce, but An Ji serves one of our favourites. Also famous for their fish head noodles, we prefer the dry-style sang mee (crispy noodle, $4/$5/$8/$12/$15) soaked in thick black bean gravy with slices of snakehead fish. Thin egg noodles are deep-fried in-house to keep it crispy and fresh, then moistened as it’s smothered with the gravy. An Ji has a good range of seafood tze char dishes, from the sweet cereal prawns to the more acquired bitter gourd with fish intestines. For beer snack, we love the shrimp paste chicken ($8/$10/$12) and the spicy mussels ($8/$10/$12). The latter is fresh, spiked with sambal (chilli paste), black beans and garlic. The brothers behind An Ji inherited the business from their mother who started selling hawker food on the street decades ago.