Because in Singapore there's no excuse for having a bad meal.

Not always pretty, but always interesting....

Good vibrations on Pagoda Street – Chuan Garden Sichuan Restaurant

To many, Singapore’s Chinatown consists primarily of Pagoda Street and a few cross streets with knickknack stores and mediocre eateries bulging onto the sidewalk. Except when showing out-of-towners around, locals tend to avoid these eateries along the trinket trail – we see them as tourist traps, overpriced or just plain “un-cool” to be caught dining at.

But some restaurants in this part of Chinatown get a bad rap just because of their location. Take for example Chuan Garden Restaurant, a glass fronted, air conditioned Sichuan restaurant immediately at the top of the MRT escalator on Pagoda Street. It’s hard to find a more touristy location this side of Marina Bay. There’s even a pedestal with a menu outside. But my mother always said “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and so applying that principle here, I gave it a try.

Inside, Chuan Garden is pleasant: simple tables, tasteful d├ęcor and not much clutter. Our plan was to focus on a couple of fundamentals to gauge the kitchen’s Sichuan skill.  Contradicting our minority ang moh status in the restaurant, we told the waitress to give us authentic Sichuan heat; not some tamed-down tourist version.

We started with a classic Mapo Doufu which to me is a Sichuan basic which forecasts the quality of my pending meal. The tofu was cubed larger than typical, giving ample surface area to hold the spicy chili oil and finely minced beef. The initial taste attack was complex and savory, if not a bit salty even for this dish. The chili heat unwound slowly, starting as a warm sensation accompanied with a hearty meat and scallion flavor. From there it elevated to a medium burn as the oil coated the back of my palate and worked its way down. Perhaps hot by the tourist standards, we found it to be pleasantly piquant but not overwhelming (was our heat level mandate lost in translation?). Then the third layer of taste – Sichuan peppercorn (hua jiao) – revealed itself with its hallmark vibrato of quivering inside my mouth, and I started to relax about the food. The heat level stalled just below medium-high but delivered enough other flavor and silky tofu texture to make up for its spicy shortcomings.

La Zhi Ji
We moved on to another basic Sichuan requirement:  La Zhi Ji. To me a plate of these crispy chicken pieces buried in a mountain of dried chilies is one of the most exciting Sichuan dishes I know, because eating it is both a challenge and a dare. The challenge: to dig through the pile of fiercely hot chilies and find the golden chunks hidden within; the dare: to resist devouring chopsticksful of the maliciously titillating chilies themselves.

The all-dark-meat chicken was perfectly crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, delivering excellent texture and chew factor. The red chilies imparted a satisfying, but utterly bearable fire. A scattering of sesame seeds, scallions and a few hua jiao added freshness and a little numbness to each bite. But as good as it tasted, something was missing. And it took a few minutes before I realized just what that was: the thrill of the hunt.

A platter of La Zhi Ji should bring out the child in those of us who like to play with their food. Finishing this dish should spark an emotional  rollercoaster of disappointment and triumph: the dejected sense of failure when desperately digging for a final, elusive scrap of chicken, and the heroic exuberance of actually finding one. It makes the dish exactly what Sichuan food should be: exciting and fun! But without enough chilies to lose the chicken in, Chuan Garden’s La Zhi Ji left me feeling somehow shortchanged; like being handed a free prize at the carnival rather than winning it myself. I wanted to work for my pain!

Mala Frog Legs
But if the volume of chilies amongst the chicken fell short, the hua jiao peppercorns in the Mala frog legs made amends. The dish was presented in a raised bowl, heated beneath and sizzling deep in the bottom. Silky frogs legs were nestled between a bite sized medley of green and red capsicum, cubes of chayote, fiery red chilis and a very generous handful of whole garlic cloves. They were cooked to perfection and just so Ma! The richness of the frog legs permeated the glistening peppers and firm garlic with not a hint of swampy tang. Best of all, a fistful of hua jiao was tossed in and – like sirens temping wayward seafarers to steer toward the rocky shores and their certain demise – their flowery redolence lured our craving lips closer to repeated helpings despite the searing pain. The dish steamed beneath our noses, the spice level skyrocketed as our sweat pores loosened, and the numbing vibrations in the tissue of our lips accelerated to staccato pounding on the roof of our mouths. Finally we had reached the pinnacle of the Chengdo mountain and suffered the full-on heatfest of our cravings. And it hurt so good!

Indeed, straying further from Chinatown’s touristy center leads to excellent food from the motherland and beyond. But while Chuan Garden may not fill the (sadly empty) shoes of such Sichuan stalwarts as say, Ba Yu Ren Jia, it’s good to know that even amidst the tourist fervor of Pagoda Street, there is good food to be found.

Chuan Garden Restaurant, 79 Pagoda Street, Singapore

Noodling around: KL Style Hokkien Mee at Kong Kee.

On invitation of an esteemed foodie friend I recently foodwalked to Kong Kee Seafood, a corner kopitiam in Geylang. It’s not hard to spot this place – just look for the large, colorful food photos above the two-sided entry, which trail into the outdoor, covered area. Our focus this day was KL style Hokkien Mee; so different from the usual Singapore style, with thicker noodles and a deeper flavor.  The lineup included two variations: the normal KL style hokkien mee and one with freshwater prawns.

The most distinguishing visible aspect of Kong Kee's KL hokkien mee compared to what is normally found in Singapore are the noodles themselves. Instead of the local yellow egg noodles used here, these are tai loke noodles, a thicker noodle, smooth and nearly a quarter-centimeter in diameter, with a luscious, dense texture, slick and slippery on the palate and with a very satisfying bite factor. These are noodles you can really sink you teeth into. They are brought directly from KL – it’s sad to think that no one is making this style of thicker, heavier noodle in Singapore. 

The richness of the dark sauce adorning the mee is borne from a stock melange of pork, chicken and flatfish, simmered slowly over an open flame for more than five hours. The noodles are then cooked in the savory elixir, adding a depth to their own opulent, plumpness. The sauce, so black and rich, is sticky like honey clinging to the noodles and imparting a rich, deep soy and spice flavor – savory but not bitter; naturally dulcet but not sweet. Balanced.

The difference between the 2 variations was significant. Prawns sat majestically on top of a mound of noodles, hues of red and orange glistening on the large, split shells with fat tails and head. But despite its beauty, nowhere in the sauce did we taste the essence of prawn; no delicate sweetness of roe; no briny notes of the sea. This was because the shellfish had been steamed separately and merely set on top of the noodles. To the chef’s defense, it did make for a more appealing appearance, but we chanted in unison Wah, cook the prawn together to make the dish special! Proprietor Jasmine Gan graciously accepted our comments for future versions.

Also missing in the prawn version was a trademark hokkien mee ingredient -- that singular requirement which, above all others, makes a good dish great and a great dish over the top -- lard. A quick rush in the kitchen overcame this crippling deficit with a generous bowl of hot-off-the-wok lardon bits which, like junkies slapping their arms for a quick fix, we quickly sprinkled on top and sighed a chorus of satisfaction as the hot fat crunched gently amidst the noodles then melted in our mouths.  No one can argue that limiting the lard is heart healthy; especially for those who are especially cholesterol conscious. But for me, the lardon bits saved the dish from a harsher commentary.

The plain hokkien mee faced no such risk of reprisal from our table. The same fat noodles graced the plate, the dark sauce coating each length like savory molasses. The slippery noodles snaked their way between my lips, resisted ever so slightly against my teeth, then relinquished into a perfect mee texture. Each bite delivered that priceless breath of almost-burnt-but-not-quite flavor from the searing wok. And the plunging depth of that je ne sais quoi flavor of, yes, lard infused within the sauce was both comforting and exciting at the same time. And with a generous sprinkle of the lardon on top, the dish transported me to previously undiscovered hokkien mee heights.

Of course man does not live on hokkien mee alone, and in addition to the noodles we tried the chef’s own crispy fried grouper chunks. A floss of greenery crowned the mound of golden fried fish sitting in a delicate rice nest flecked with minced red chilies. The texture of the fish was firm like little poppers, if not mildly dry, and was coated in a fine granular powder of herbs, sesame and other flavorful ingredients which were so tasty we wished they clung more tenaciously to the fish.

We also had 2 variations of sang har bee hoon and an order of sang har hor fun with prawns. Each was very nicely done but it was the sang har hokkien crispy mee that captured my attention most; light layers of noodles fried together to form delicious little tiles which oozed with rich sauce. We finished the meal with a serving of peanut paste and a chocolate paste, each with glutinous rice balls. Each was delicate and thin -- not overly sweet or cloying -- and the glutinous rice balls, filled with red bean paste, were like tender cotton balls of flavor and texture.

So whether the black KL style hokkien mee at Kong Kee is as good as that available in KL, I really can’t say. But the noodles are the same and with their richness of taste and the obvious good cooking technique displayed by our chef, I suspect it’s a pretty close contest. Combine them with the other offerings and Kong Kee is a great option among so many in Geylang.

Kong Kee Seafood Restaurant -- 611 Lorong 31, Geylang, Singapore