Eng's Noodle House
287 Tanjong Katong Road
Open 9am to 11pm;
closed on alternate Mondays
"OH, you're going to An Eng's ah?" confirms the taxi driver after I give him the address on Tanjong Katong Road. "You're a regular?" I reply, hoping that he would share an anecdote or two on the well-known wanton noodles.
It turns out that he isn't a regular anymore, at least not since the price of the noodles was raised to $4 a bowl from $3. This happened when the business shifted from the nearby Dunman Food Centre to a shophouse not too far away where diners dine in airy comfort and - female diners especially - get to hang their bags from hooks considerately placed under the table.
Eng's Noodle House on Tanjong Katong Road now fits right into the road lined with hip as well as traditional food outlets. Across the road, there's a branch of the famous Ng Ah Sio bak kut teh - decked out in an even more lavish shop and fully air-conditioned. This seems to be the way the more famous hawker businesses are going, which is fine as long as quality doesn't take a hit.
The noodle house is now run by former hawker Thomas Ng's son, Desmond, who had resigned from his IT sales job to expand the venture. The firm egg noodles and
char siew used to be made by the senior Ng but they are now factory-made to the Ngs' specifications.
Eng's serves quite a "local" version of the wanton noodles - in that the egg noodles have a springier texture and are thicker compared to traditional Hong Kong-style noodles. What's unusual is that the noodles aren't mixed in a dark or light soy sauce and chilli as they are normally but are only lightly tossed in pork lard, so that they appear "white". The char siew is thinly sliced, such that it doesn't take the attention away from the noodles and wantons.
The noodles are reminiscent of Sarawak kolo mee in fact, except that the Sarawak version has much more lard. The wantons - both in boiled and deep-fried versions - are lovely, given the thin skin and the half and half mix of fatty and lean mince.
The chilli sauce is super spicy and it's straight chilli rather than a tastier sambal-like sauce, griped my dining companion. But that's a personal preference. Even if you've not had the noodles when the senior Mr Ng was doling it out at Dunman food centre, one is assured of a tasty - and healthy - bite in a comfortable shophouse setting.
By Cheah Ui-Hoon
Cho Kee Noodle
Old Airport Road Food Centre, #01-04
Open daily from 11.30am to 11.30pm
BARELY 10 minutes after Cho Kee Noodle opens for the day, a queue of eight customers has formed. Most of these early birds are there for its signature dry wanton noodles.
No one complains about having to pay upfront or waiting until their queue number flashes on a screen, summoning them to pick up their order.
As everyone waits, the queue snakes even longer - all before the lunch hour proper.
So what is Cho Kee's secret?
Stall owner Cho Kum Kong, 58, says it lies in the freshness of his ingredients; the wanton, char siew and the noodles are made from scratch. He believes the quality food keeps customers coming back.
"You have to do your job with passion and take pride in how your food turns out. When customers enjoy your food, they will naturally return to your stall for more. And you must be good and grateful to them," he says.
Every night, he and his wife head to their central kitchen in Admiralty at around 10pm. There, she makes the noodles from scratch, and he cooks them. The couple and their workers also prepare the other ingredients - the char siew, chilli sauce and dumplings.
After the hard work, they find themselves leaving the kitchen only at 5am. Only after the ingredients are delivered to the stall do the couple go to bed.
Workers run the stall during its business hours, though Mr Cho does stop by sometimes to keep an eye on things.
There is a reason for the handmade noodles: he sees making them as his way of sharing and preserving his family's recipe. He says that even if he were to hand his business to someone else, the taste of his signature wanton noodles will not change.
He says: "It's a shame that so many hawkers have retired and not passed down their businesses to anyone. There is a lot of good food available now, but it is not the same - many don't have the rich heritage that those hawker stalls used to have.
"I don't want that to happen to my family recipe. The handmade noodles are an important part of the dish, as well as our way of keeping the recipe alive."
Each bowl of wanton noodles ($3 or $4) comes with a generous portion of yellow egg noodles which are springy and do not stick together in the fragrant black sauce. They are slightly sweet and delicious even on their own.
The wantons are generously stuffed with minced meat and are understated in taste, perhaps to complement the natural taste of the noodles.
The char siew slices are a little dry, but their lean-ness will appeal to the health-conscious. The chilli sauce gives the dish a spicy kick.
The stall started out as a pushcart stall on Old Airport Road in 1965. Mr Cho's mother manned it, doing the cooking and the serving; Mr Cho and his siblings were frequent helpers.
He, as eldest son, took over in the 70s when she retired, eventually settling the stall within the Old Airport Road Food Centre; the stall also has outlets in Toa Payoh and 112 Katong Mall.
Mr Cho, ever the modest one about his stall's popularity, says his passion for upholding his mother's legacy keeps him going: "You must like your job. That will give you the strength to continue even if it is tiring. It makes me really happy when customers say they like my food."
By Sara Yap
Fei Fei Wanton Mee
72 & 62 Joo Chiat Place
Open 24 hours daily
You would never expect GST to be a measure of the success of a hawker stall, but Kelvin Lim, 51, believes a hawker has "arrived" if his stall has to levy GST.
Businesses with annual sales of $1 million or more must register for GST - his sales are five to six times that amount, which is why he is so proud of the 7 per cent mark on the receipts from his cash register.
It is a status symbol.
Fei Fei initially added the tax to its customers' bills, but started absorbing it when its regulars complained.
Mr Lim is quite a character, to say the least, with a loud voice and a louder personality.
Ask him what he would have been if he had not taken to hawking, and he thunders: "I wanted to be a rock star!"
But under that booming voice is an unexpectedly gentler heart.
You see, before he took over the business, he was making his own way in the world - no doubt chasing his rock star dreams. His father was running the stall, and his grandfather tended to the stove.
One day, they told him they were shorthanded, so he started helping out at the stall. It was then that he saw that his grandfather was getting too old for the hawker life.
He says: "At that time, the stall was only open from 6 to 9pm, but you have to realise that the preparation work - making the
wanton skin, making the noodles, wrapping the wanton, preparing the char siew and so on - needs up to eight hours.
"So I told him he shouldn't be standing 12 hours a day like that anymore, and that he should let me take over instead."
Business boomed under his watch; it soon expanded to another shop unit down the road (at 62 Joo Chiat Place).
The changing lifestyles of Singaporeans also prompted him to stay open round the clock, and to set up a central kitchen in Kampong Ampat so that food preparation could go on as bowls of noodles were served up.
Asked how Fei Fei got so popular, Mr Lim says that although food trends come and go, the taste of homegrown foods, authentically and lovingly prepared, never goes out of fashion.
And, like his grandfather, who first peddled the noodles in a pushcart in 1949, the younger man is also particular about maintaining standards.
Unlike many wanton noodle stalls, Fei Fei makes its noodles and wanton skins - and the difference is in the taste.
The noodles are delightfully springy and the wanton skin, soft and light. The meat in the wanton is fresh, with a strong peppery taste, though the char siew is pretty average.
Mr Lim's eye on maintaining quality has made expansion plans difficult.
He says: "If I were to expand, I need to find someone with the same attitude as me - they must not have a money-minded sort of thinking.
"To make a business successful, you have to do everything with heart. If you only think about money, you'll keep thinking of ways to cut costs, and the quality of your food will suffer."
This means until he has found and trained such a person, one will have to make tracks to Joo Chiat for one's Fei Fei wanton noodles fix.
But seeing how far the stall has come, from its humble origin as an itinerant cart to now paying GST, it may be well worth the trip.
By Natalie Koh
Guangzhou Mian Shi Wanton Noodle
48A Tanglin Halt Road, Tanglin Halt
Market & Food Centre, #01-04
Open 5:30pm to 3am, Tuesdays to Saturdays
FIRST-TIMERS to Tanglin Halt Food Centre may find it hard to find this stall. It is tucked away in a dark corner of the food centre.
There are no photographs of celebrities giving its food the thumbs up, no newspaper clippings of glowing reviews or certificates to attest to the quality of the food - but do not let the lack of recognition fool you.
This under-the-radar stall draws a good crowd every night from dinner through to the late supper hours.
Actually, to find the stall, just look for the queue, which can be 10 people deep on a busy night. Thankfully, the queue moves pretty quickly, and there are no grumpy hawkers to deal with.
Chan Yoke Chan took over the stall from her father in the 1990s. He set up the stall in 1965, and she is sticking to his recipe.
She keeps things simple; it perhaps explains why, despite the queues, she remains calm and collected.
Her son, a friendly young chap, takes orders while she does the cooking.
Choose from either wanton or dumplings (shui jiao), noodles or kway teow, and have it either in the dry or soup version.
The dry version appears more popular, thanks to the fragrant chilli paste in which the noodles are tossed.
The noodles are firm to the bite and do not turn mushy when not eaten immediately, or when left sitting in the soup.
Madam Chan cooks the noodles in boiling water, before blanching them in cold water to keep them springy.
The home-made wantons are packed with pork, and the dumplings, pork and prawns.
The noodles come in either the $2.50 portion, or the bigger $3 one which gets you four wantons, a good helping of vegetables and more than 10 slices of lean home-made char siew.
This wanton mee is a satisfying alternative for those who are tired of the usual supper food like Teochew porridge or prata.
By Tay Suan Chiang
Zhong Yu Yuan Wei Wanton Noodle
#02-30 Tiong Bahru Market
DON'T be intimidated by hawker Lee Meng Joo's usually stoic appearance. For if you manage to strike up a conversation with him after his hectic operating hours, you'll come to learn that besides churning out what is arguably Singapore's best char siew and wanton noodles, he's also an unpublished Chinese poet.
The 54-year-old was an ardent student of Chinese literature at Nanyang Junior College in his day, and continues to hold ancient Chinese proverbs as guiding principles for how he runs his business.
"It doesn't matter when you start in your pursuit of learning, as long as you achieve your goal," he says.
In his case, it didn't matter that he was a Hainanese boy born to a family of caterers and chicken rice specialists. That didn't stop him from venturing out to specialise in wanton mee, a typically Cantonese dish.
Says Mr Lee, who opened his stall in Tiong Bahru 30 years ago: "It's a never-ending learning process. You need to do your own research and at the same time check on what your peers are doing - it's not something you can learn off the Internet."
His stall is best known for its premium bu jian tian cut of pork char siew, otherwise known as the pig's armpit cut, or a section between the pork shoulder and belly so named for never being exposed to sunlight.
A 100kg pig will typically yield less than 2kg of such a cut, Mr Lee says, so he has to personally source them from different market stalls one floor below every morning. The pork is then marinated for a few hours and roasted in batches over a charcoal fire to produce a fragrant aroma you can smell even from across the table, and a smokey-sweet caramelised flavour.
You have to specially request the bu jian tian cut as it sells out quickly, and at only a dollar more than a bowl of wanton mee with his Grade B pork shoulder char siew, it is well worth it. The thinly fat-lined slabs toe the fine line between being tender and not too dry and outright fatty. The wanton noodles fade away next to the delightful char siew slabs - probably to let the latter take centrestage.
Few of the other stalls want to use this cut of meat because it's expensive, and it burns easily if you don't know how to cook it, adds Mr Lee, who runs the stall with his wife, Zhang Pei Fang. And with the long hours and physical demands of the job, neither of his two children, both in their 20s, have any interest in taking over, he admits.
Even when the stall is shut on Fridays, Mr Lee can be seen there frying the chilli or preparing stocks and sauces for the weekend ahead. "My food requires long hours of preparation for just six hours of operations, when I should really spend less time preparing and more hours selling.
"According to the principles of economics, we should have failed," he laughs.
By Debbie Yong
The Business Times/Knight Frank CEOs' Hawker Choices 2013 is a guide to the best street food in Singapore as chosen by Singapore's top executives.
How it works
A master panel of distinguished professionals (listed below) created a master list of hawkers for each food category. This list was subsequently sent out to The Business Times' CEO Club, comprising all the top management of companies based in Singapore, who were invited to vote for their favourite stalls. The stalls with the most votes are then visited by BT Weekend's food reviewers and featured in a weekly spread in the Living section. The objective of this series is to create an unbiased guide to the best hawker food in Singapore, as well as create a platform to help preserve the old cooking traditions that are in danger of dying out. This series will run for 26 weeks, after which the content will be compiled into a guidebook, with sales proceeds to go towards furthering this and other charitable causes.
Our master panel members
Tan Tiong Cheng (chairman, Knight Frank Pte Ltd)
Alan Chan (CEO, Singapore Press Holdings)
Chong Siak Ching (CEO, Ascendas)
Elim Chew (president/founder of 77th Street)
Edmund Koh (chief executive and country head of UBS Singapore)
Professor Tommy Koh (Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore)
Kwek Leng Peck (executive director, Hong Leong Asia)
Allen Lew (CEO, SingTel's digital life division)
Ng Lang (CEO, URA)
Philip Ng (CEO, Far East Organization)
Seah Kian Peng (CEO, NTUC Fairprice Co-operative Ltd)