Singapore's hawker centers are possibly the best thing to happen to the urban island nation. The country is remarkably expensive in comparison to its neighbors in the region and the culinary response to that is the hawker center, a place where local people can go for a cheap meal – those who can't afford the city's Western chains, those who value the tradition behind this communal cafeteria style of eating, the elderly, students and everyone in between can be found queuing patiently (and sometimes not so patiently, cutting is always a threat) at small stalls that are almost all famous for one thing or another. Because we wanted the city's best food and because we were being cheap, hawker centers are where Charlie and I found ourselves eating again and again in Singapore.
I tried to avoid the more obvious contenders, though. The hawker centers like Maxwell Food Center draw lots of tourists and, thus, aren't the best places to get an authentic, high-quality experience for good value. Hawker centers are comprised of tens or sometimes even hundreds of different stalls under one roof, all sharing communal seating which is most often bussed and cleaned by staff. Eaters purchase food (and drinks from separate, dedicated stalls) and grab a table. Serious locals save their seats before getting food by placing a colorful tissue packet at their spot, but we just worried about seating after scoring the goods.
And the goods were good. Want char kway teow? Fried carrot cake? Seafood? Chicken rice? Frog porridge or cendol? How about bratwurst? It's all available under one roof, as long as you've got time to wait in line.
We went first to the Chinatown Complex to find Zhong Guo La Mian Xiao Long Bao, because we're obsessed with the special little soup dumplings and needed a fix. These ones have a great reputation for good value that comes with a long line at lunch time, but there was no line when we showed up before noon on a weekday. We ordered steamed mini buns and pan-fried dumplings and obeyed signs to wait there for the order to be prepared. Sauces are self-serve but if you're a confused looking tourist, the friendly dumpling experts behind the counter will tell you exactly what to dunk each dumpling in.Look at that lacey fried crust on the bottom of each dumpling – these were fresh and piping hot, flavorful, near translucent and juicy. A rare specimen of near-perfection.
The xiao long bao (about USD $4.50 for 10) were the stars, though. Delicate, yet not too fragile, full of complex broth and tender meat, the parcels sagged with weight between our chopsticks on their way to our mouths – a sign of freshness and thin-skinned perfection. Local reviewers say that these aren't quite as good as the famed XLBs at Din Tai Fung, but after having been to Din Tai Fung locations in two different countries, I'd say these definitely give the big guys a run for their money (for much less money spent, which is an essential detail).
On a return to the Chinatown Complex we found ourselves spontaneously waiting on line for an hour in front of HongKong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle. It was the longest line in the center and, naturally, we were sold. We were the only tourists on line but at around the 20-minute mark of waiting, we started chatting with the Singaporeans around us. Mostly elderly, these people were repeat customers and knew exactly what to do. Shiny, golden brown whole chickens hung in the stall's window alongside crispy roast pork belly – each to be plated up with noodles or rice and doused with thick, sweet soya sauce, complete with soft little soy beans.
This was one of the best things I ate in months. The chicken, sliced powerfully straight through the bone with a cleaver in true Asian fashion, was soft and moist and exploded with flavor, the skin almost candied from heat and sugar. We got a half chicken to share for just a few dollars, and noodles to lap up the addictive sauce – I kicked myself for not bringing my camera to fully capture the magic. Skip the famous Tian Tian chicken rice place in Maxwell and go here instead. The wait is worth it.
Side note: In the bottom of the Chinatown Complex there's a wet market that offers groceries from greens and eggs to live turtles and frogs for cooking. Don't wear flip flops, the slippery tiled floor lives up to its name, soaked with water and, like, offal juices, as all good wet markets do. It's gross (but fascinating). Charlie waited outside.
We had a hard time getting to the Zion Riverside Food Center to try the famous No. 18 Zion Road Fried Kway Teow. In fact, we completely failed on our first attempt and ended up lost and waiting for a bus that would never come. We gave up, defeated and kind of pissed off. Finding awesome food is not always easy out there, guys! But we were determined. On another night, we came at the center from a different direction and found success. And a line, of course.We split up to divide and conquer, and I waited for about 30 minutes for this large plate of saucy fried noodles. There are two types of noodles in there, in fact – both wide and round – and they mingle with crispy pork lard, sliced fish cake, scallions, egg, bean sprouts, tons of briny cockles and Chinese sausage thin as ribbons. It's greasy, heavy, dark, totally indulgent and comes in three sizes ranging from SGD $3 to $5. The guy working in this stall totally cranks these out – it's hot and he's perpetually busy over his wok, tossing noodles, cracking eggs, ladling sauce. He's a hero.
While I waited for the char kway teow, Charlie waited for another famous Zion dish – a duo of black and white fried carrot cake from a deaf couple at Lau Goh Teochew Chye Thow Kway. The carrot cake comes two ways on one plate if you want – both with and without dark soy sauce. The cake itself is crumbled into an egg omelet and fried up to a crisp. Again, not a light dish, but a treat worth trying.
Just as well as Singapore is known for hawker centers, it's known for chilli crab. Serious spenders crack and down these things on the reg – crabs go for about USD $30 a pop at restaurants across the city – and if you're on a budget, you should be prepared to splurge. I can't see leaving Singapore without eating one. I am a shelfish lover, though.
We went to Momma Kong's, a relatively new addition on the Singapore chilli crab scene with a millennial, hipster vibe that didn't scream tourist trap. Three of us ordered two crabs, most likely mud crabs, and some steamed mantou to mop up any extra sauce, and there was more than enough food to go around (even though our waiter suggested one crab per person).
Our first choice was obviously the chilli crab – it came with limbs practically sidewalking off the plate, swimming in thick, eggy, tomato-y sauce. The crab had a ton of succulent meat inside and not too much heat – sweet and tangy are the prominent notes here.
We also got a crab bee hoon soup, which Momma Kong's is quickly becoming well-known for. This crab swam in a cloudy, milky broth with bok choy and rice noodles. The broth sung of fragrant ginger and butter – a subtle contrast to the bold chilli crab, and an excellent way to end a few days of serious eating in Singapore before flying out to India, where food became our enemy (OK I'm exaggerating, a little).
Chinatown Complex: 335 Smith Street, Chinatown, Singapore
Zion Riverside Food Center: 70 Zion Road, Singapore, Across from Great World City mall
Momma Kong's: 34 Mosque Street, Chinatown, Singapore