Your guide to Singapore's best-kept foodie secrets

Not all of Singapore's best restaurants are in the tourist guidebook. Marc Checkley visits some popular spots that are off the radar

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 May, 2013, 10:25am

Food is truly where a Singaporean's passion lies. Queues at local establishments, be they hawker centres, coffee shops or restaurants, are a daily sight. So is the custom of travelling across the island during lunch breaks just to get one's fill of a star dish. The ensuing food photos posted online are proof that this love affair is a fundamental part of the national psyche.

The Singaporean palate is diverse, bringing together a patchwork of flavours, spices and colours.

Tourists may be fed the culinary clichés: laksa, nasi lemak (fragrant rice), chilli crab and the ubiquitous chicken rice. But those with a bit of time explore the island will uncover the essence of Singapore.

Here are six of the best.

Two Chefs Eating Place Singapore's zi char restaurants have as much buzz as Hong Kong's dai pai dong. This one is tucked inside a public housing estate. Frequented by anyone from students to families and couples, this humble open-air diner is best known for its special butter pork, costing as little as S$8 (HK$49).

Owners Lam Chan Wah and Lee Kao Shung cook the pork chops slowly in butter and then add flour, milk and other "secret" ingredients until a soft, powdery coating forms. The contrast between the milky coating and the wok-fried curry leaf garnish is delicious. Salty and sweet, the pork also has a slight crunch.

With more than 100 other dishes, including the flavour-rich three egg (century, chicken and salted) vegetable broth and honey roasted chicken wings, it's understandable why this shop is beating the competition.

Block 116, 01-129, 116 Commonwealth Crescent, tel: +65 6472 5361. Open: Mon 5.30pm-11pm, Tues-Sun 11.30-2.30pm, 5pm-11.30pm, but closed every last Monday of the month. Average cost per person: S$15

Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang

Since 1966 the Raffles Place office crowds have followed their noses to this halal mixed rice stall and restaurant. And going by the queue that begins to snake along the footpath at lunchtime, this unassuming restaurant's reputation is far from being usurped. Sinar Pagi's dishes, adapted from one of Indonesia's culinary capitals (Padang in West Sumatra), are a daily feast of colour and aromas.

Stand-out dishes include the king prawns doused in piquant sambal balado, perkedel (potato fritters), crunchy archar (pickled fruit and veggies), paired with grilled ayam lemak (chicken cooked in coconut milk and tomatoes) and daun singkong (a moreish yellow curry made from cassava leaves).

No visit is complete without a sampling of the beef rendang, one of the best in Singapore. Succulent, melt-in-your-mouth cubes of beef are infused with myriad spices and cooked for more than six hours until reduced to a rich, dry curry. The all-male staff keeps the rhythm going and if it all gets too hot, there are tables upstairs where there is air conditioning.

13 Circular Road (behind Boat Quay), tel: +65 6536 5302. Open: Mon-Fri 10.30am-9pm. Average cost per person: S$9

Le Chasseur

The French name is about as close as this restaurant gets to anything European. Ask chef Andy Lim, who runs the diner with his family, to explain the name (which means "hunter") and he'll say, "I like it."

The place serves Chinese comfort food, ideal for groups. There's no mistaking what's on offer as the peach-coloured walls are adorned with photographs of the 50-plus menu items. Large faux-marble tables fill the space, traffic signs state "no MSG, pigments or goods and services tax", while a soundtrack of musical theatre covers (say, Memory) attempts to add aural ambience.

Never mind the airs and graces, the food is memorable. Prime examples include the fragrant claypot rice (S$11-S$20, allow 20 minutes). Mixed hot at the table, it's a steaming concoction of tender chicken, shiitake mushrooms, Chinese sausage and kow choi (leek) drizzled in sticky black sauce. The deluxe coffee ribs (S$16) will leave you messy but satisfied. The meaty strips of pork are laced in a bold coffee marinade - more than one serving will have you bouncing off the walls.

Lim says other restaurants just use three-in-one instant coffee mixes but his is from an "authentic espresso machine". Alternatively, feast on the rich chicken curry with egg noodles (S$7) or barbecued live prawns (S$10), washed down with a homemade barley drink.

31 New Bridge Road (opposite The Central), tel: +65 6337 7677. Open daily: 11am-3pm, 5.30pm-9.30pm. Average cost per person: S$15; cash only

Chui Huay Lim Teochew Cuisine

The Teochew, one of the largest clans in Singapore today, have been in Southeast Asia since the mid-19th century. They originated from eight prefectures in China's Fujian province. Arriving in Ngee Ann, the southern island, they soon cemented their distinctive cooking techniques which emphasise less salt and flavouring. Essentially, they are China's first Weight Watchers.

You can find a modern approach to this cuisine just a five-minute drive from Orchard Road. Surrounded by condominiums near Newton Circus and only recognisable by the gate, this upmarket restaurant dishes out classics.

Must-tries include the plump prawns (S$20-S$40), cooked in a light sauce with shaved yellow chives; wok-baked lobster with fermented bean and garlic (seasonal prices) and ngoh hiang (S$9), the Teochew equivalent of a sausage roll. The charcoal-fried kway teow noodles (S$12-S$24) with diced kai-lan, or Chinese broccoli, have a unique earthy flavour that pairs well with beer.

And the signature dish - braised goose served over tofu in a soy and cinnamon stock - will keep you salivating. Teochew desserts are not to be ignored; the fried yam sticks encrusted in sugar (S$10 for six, allow 25 minutes) are a nice finish.

Chui Huay Lim Clubhouse, 190 Keng Lee Road, tel: +65 6732 3637; Open daily: 11.30am-3pm, 6pm-11pm. Average cost per person is S$30; advance booking is advised

Sixth Avenue Nasi Briyani Specialist

While Singaporeans and tourists flock to Little India to get their briyani fix, this halal hawker stall, anchored in one of Singapore's most exclusive residential areas, has been a secret port of call of kaypoh (nosey) foodies for well over a decade. Juxtaposed against condominiums and gated mansions, it's no wonder this place is off the radar.

Singapore briyani, adapted from the southern Indian dish, has three main components: basmati rice cooked with ghee, ginger, cardamom, fried shallots, star anise, cinnamon and saffron; a side of curry; and fried chicken or curried mutton.

It seems straightforward but the execution is far from simple. And this is where this hawker excels. The chicken is moist and plump, wrapped in a spiced crispy skin with just a hint of pandan leaf.

The vegetable curry is buttery but not oily, and the rice is evenly spiced, a complex amalgamation of flavours, yet not stodgy.

Paired with pappadams, pickles and a mug of fresh lime juice, it's heaven on a plate. If it wasn't such a rich helping, you would go for seconds. But at least any extra curry is free.

12 Sixth Avenue, tel: +65 8152 4561 (mobile). Open daily: 6am-10pm (briyani served after 10.30am). Average cost per person: S$5. Cash only

Tong Ah Coffee Shop

Secret recipes are a mainstay of Singapore's famed culinary haunts and Tong Ah is no exception. For four generations, the Tang family has run this establishment, and its special coffee blend has ensured a steady flow of clientele.

Housed in an iconic pre-war building along Chinatown's Keong Saik Road - once traversed by ladies of the night who dressed as air stewardesses to command a premium price - the coffee shop is busiest during the morning rush.

Its breakfast sets consist of thick slices of butter and kaya toast (jam made from pandan and coconut), half-boiled eggs and home-brewed kopi. It's said that three secret types of coffee beans are roasted with butter and sugar to create the distinct flavour.

The Tangs also add a knob of butter to the coffee just before serving. This addition harks back to a time when butter was a premium product and considered a status symbol. It's not mandatory to have it; but there's no guarantee you won't be looked down upon.

36 Keong Saik Road, tel: +65 6223 5083. Open daily: 7.30am-2.30pm, 5.30pm-10.30pm; closed every other Wednesday. Average cost per person: S$6. Cash only