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

Not always pretty, but always interesting....

Tiong Bahru Foodwalk: Dining in the Den of Beauties.

Tiong Bahru is one of Singapore’s oldest housing development neighborhoods; an oasis of art deco buildings and culinary discoveries in an area that modern time forgot – until recently.

Once the desired living room of the upper-class, Tiong Bahru became infamous as the keeping place for mistresses of the rich and powerful, lending itself to the Mandarin label Mei Ren Wo (“Den of Beauties”). But the beauty here is not just skin deep; the architecture is also something to behold, with a mix of local Straits Chinese shophouses and art-deco structures with rounded balconies, flat rooftops and spiral staircases still in use today. Kind of like Miami's pre-gentrified South Beach with Chinese characteristics. 
All roads in this historic area lead to your foodwalk starting point: the famed Tiong Bahru Market. It’s the epicenter since 1955 of what feels distinctly like a compact village hidden deep within the towering development of the Lion City’s central district.  The first self-organized wet market in Singapore, this primarily-morning affair is still seen as a prime example of a well-designed center for excellent food.

Start your walk on the second level hawker center with a helping of chwee kueh at Jian Bo Shui Kueh (stall #02-05). The ladies there will slide tender, steamed rice cakes onto a sheet of paper, plop a dollop of radish sautéed with garlic, soy and herbs on top and slip a heaping spoon of dense, not-too-hot chili in the middle. It’s four for a buck and with just one bite you’ll understand why so many claim this to be the best on the island. 

Next, head down-stall to Tiong Bahru Pau (stall #02-18) and supplement breakfast with a fresh-made steamed pork bun, silky prawn dumpling and delicious shiu mai.
 And if that doesn’t tickle your taste buds, try a plate of roasted meats with rice at Original Tiong Bahru Golden Pig & Roasted (stall #02-68) or nearly any of the other hawkers up there – just look for the longest queue and you can't go wrong.

Downstairs in the wet market, wander the aisles of fish mongers on the far end, their catch neatly iced for maximum freshness. Off to one side comes multiple pork stalls – among the best in town – followed by fresh vegetables, eggs and fruit. On the other side of the market's grassy open courtyard is chicken, fishcakes, more vegetables and stalls of fresh cut orchids and other tropical flowers flashing optic in the morning sun.

As much as you’ll want to stay and enjoy the market, head out the main entrance to the intersection of Seng Poh and Eng Hoon streets. As you look around at the old-school architecture of this town center you may feel drawn to the opposing corner, where excellent curry rice with pork chop has been available since 1946 at Loo’s Hiananese Curry Rice (57 Eng Hoon St. #01-88). But make a left and work off your starter snack by walking down Lim Liak Street, passing orderly rows of low-rise housing, inviting lawns and coconut trees.

At the end, turn left onto Kim Pong Road, strolling along the green open space of Kim Tian Green. If a Chinese holiday is approaching chances are there will be a large theater assembled on the lawns - something worth coming back to in the evening to watch. 

As the road curves stay to the right on Yong Siak Street, where you re-enter rows of streamline-moderne flats offering an authentic throwback to neighborhoods of yesteryear, including Teck Kee Leong Huat general store (01-18 Yong Siak St.).

By now it’s time for a coffee or tea, and the groovy Forty Hands coffee shop near the corner of Chay Yan Street (78 Yong Siak St.) is just the place.  The vibe is mellow and inviting -- sort of like a Seattle coffee house before that label meant anything -- and the coffee is made with great care and respect for the forty hands required to bring it from seed to brilliant, steaming cup.

Head up to the corner and make a left. You’ll pass the oldest part of Tiong Bahru and the housing projects that inspired the successful HDB development scheme that is now emblematic to Singapore. Hang a right on Guan Chuan, then left down Tiong Poh Road. At the corner of Eng Hoon Street check out ninety year old Qi Tian Gong Temple, Singapore’s oldest temple honoring the Monkey God, who bestows blessings and protection, eliminates bad luck and grants longevity and prosperity. 

Stroll around Eng Hoon Street to see a mix of old and new cooking schools, shophouses, ancient sewing supply stores and a specialist egg seller. At the dead-end of the street is Foodie Market Place (225 Outram Rd.) a gourmet store where hard-to-find items, including fine cuts of meat, cheeses and an assortment of imported gourmet products not available in most stores can be found.

Back at Tiong Poh Road turn right, toward the corner of Tiong Poh and Tiong Bahru Road. A quick left onto Tiong Bahru Road brings you to Glacier Confectionery (Blk 55 Tiong Bahru Rd.) for colorful kueh, breads, coconut lapis and other Chinese desserts. You’ll want to sample a few and take home even more. 

After sating your sweet tooth, continue along Tiong Bahru Road to Sin Hoi Sai (55 Tiong Bahru Rd.) and survey the live seafood selections for a future cze cha diner feast. It's gone a little Hollywood in recent years, but even local foodie critics admit it's delicious. 

At the corner with Seng Poh, cross right to the yellow Tiong Bahru Bird Arena, where old Chinese guys spend early mornings hanging cages of songbirds and then drink kopi while quietly gambling over who's is the most melodic.

By now you may be getting hungry again (as if!), so walk back up Seng Poh toward the market. You'll pass the aforementioned Loo's curry rice joint where, if you didn't try it before, the pork chop curry rice will knock your socks off. But don't have seconds, because your real destination is a couple of short blocks up the street at Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh (Blk 58 Seng Poh Rd #01-31) where you should treat yourself to a peppery bowl of thier namesake pork bone soup classic along with a side of succulently braised pig trotter and a pot of gongfu tea – it’s an old neighborhood institution, with a crowd almost anytime of the day, so you know it’s good! 

Or head down Seng Poh Lane to Por Kee Eating House (69 Seng Poh Ln.) where, if you find yourself with a small group for lunch or dinner, you should grab a table for some excellent cze char specialties like their coffee ribs (for which they are famous), a plate of crunchy cereal prawns or a steamed fish in a sour broth. Skip the air con dining room and grab an outdoor table by the car park overlooked by spiral staircases of old-school HDB low-rises. Snub-tailed stray cats will wander the lot as cooling breezes flutter your table cloth. Within minutes you'll feel you've left glittering Singapore for somewhere culturally richer.
Tiong Bahru is one of those neighborhoods in Singapore where old and new triangulate into a well-balance blend. She's Asian-old meets neo-bohemian, where you can taste good wines and artesan breads while simultaneously watching the past stand still. And that's one Den of Beauties whose beauty has stood the test of time.

Sichuan Secrets: Illegal Eating in Hong Kong.

My wife and I were in Hong Kong to celebrate a certain birthday event which shall not be spoken of. So naturally a surreptitious restaurant was the perfect venue. Da Ping Huo is one of those illegal "speakeasy's" -- private, secret restaurants -- that Hong Kong is known for within food circles. It is so easy to miss this place; just an unmarked door squeezed between random street vendors on a steep, narrow alley. The restaurant is actually the chef's apartment that has been converted into a tiny eatery, with only one way in or out. And you better be sure to only get there at the appointed time, otherwise the door is locked.

Despite its questionable legal status, this is as good a restaurant as one could hope to find. Inside there are just 7 tables. The lively sounds of other excited diners waft around the small room, blending with intoxicating aromas of spicy chilies, rich sauces and luscious smoke. 

The decor is very simple, but spotlessly clean, cool and austere, with concrete walls, an unfinished ceiling and a little art hanging around. Tableware is simple and white - no frills here, but nothing lacking either. There was even a small wine collection housed in a cooler behind our table. Perfect for a furtive meeting place.

Within the diminutive kitchen, visible only through a small hole in the wall from which everything comes or goes, stands Madame Wong, cooking while her husband and another helper serve and bus the tables. I peek through the hole where she is hard at work over several hot woks. The onslaught of spices, heavy within the steam and smoke and spatter of the kitchen attack my every sense. My eyes water and my nostrils flare. I fight back a drool. She takes a second to smile, silently, because she speaks no English.  I have no idea what she is cooking for us – there is no menu here. She simply prepares what she wants based upon the fresh ingredients in the morning market.

What I do know is that the food will be Sichuan, and by this I don't mean just screaming hot, but a skillful balance of dishes served in a succession of flavor and temperature variations: spicy followed by mild; hot followed by cool. The shimmering, novacaine feel of the Sichuan peppercorns mixed with fiery chilies is calmed by light, cooling broths or crisp, sweet vegetables, only to be reawakened by the incendiary, hurts-so-good bite of the next plate set before us.

And boy can Madame Wong cook. All the dishes in this huge, 8 course meal were excellent, pure and honest. No fusion food tricks here. Just exceptionally-prepared Sichuan masterpieces on simple white dishes.

Selections this night jumped from the crunchiest sweet and sour cucumbers to jellyfish with shredded carrot and celery in sesame chili. From cellophane noodles with soy beans, scallions and chilies to seared chicken with peanuts and sesame.

An opaque vegetable soup cooled things down before the beef tendon and potatoes was presented in a complex, fiery chili gravy. The citrusy fragrance of the hua jiao peppercorns tickled our olfactories with spicy, Novocain vibrations. A cooling melon soup brought us back.

Then came the thing dreams are made of -- the amazing ma po tofu was an incredible combination of diced bean curd with minced beef and screaming chili sauce. There was both a deep and light earthiness to the dish, with a savory punch of flavor infused in shimmering fresh tofu cubes. Its flavors spawned a juxtaposition of emotions, evoking comparisons like love and war; fire and ice. It was painful to eat on conflicting levels: the near-panic burn on the lips and palate contradicting the devastating realization that with every bite there would be that much less to keep eating. It instantly became a monkey on my back; my new drug-of-choice.

The roller-coaster heatfeast continued with dish after dish and we didn’t want it to end, despite the promise of the price we each would pay the next day. Spicy prawns with scallions, so moist and tender, tasted like the sea despite the Sichuan heat seamlessly blended within its thin sauce.

Pork with sweet potato followed, chased by a benign soup of assorted mushrooms, white cabbage and minced chicken, cooling the fire of previous dishes.

Until in a culinary crescendo came a dumpling of minced meat, ginger and herbs in steamed milky skins and bathing in a mind-blowing chili elixir hot enough to awaken the mouth, yet somehow tempered by a deep, infused sweetness.

All fires were then extinguished with a light-as-air silken jellied tofu to bring our palettes gently back to earth. It was a classic Sichuan closer to a meal that will be long remembered.

The totality of the evening made for a magical experience, from the hunt for the place, to the surreptitious setting, to the amazing food, and ending with the chef herself coming out to show off her other genius and passion: Chinese opera. Aside from breathless smiles and exchanges of compliments to the chef in a language she didn’t know, there was nothing more to be said as Madame Wong unlocked the door to the street. It was as perfect a night of exciting dinning as one could ask for and, had the cops burst in and arrested us all for our gustatory acts of crime, I would have gladly done all it over again immediately upon being sprung.