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Zi Char Choice Picks

Zi Char Choice Picks

Featuring KEK Keng Eng Kee Seafood (Alexandra), Seng Kee Black Chicken Herbal Soup (Kembangan), Kok Sen Restaurant, JB Ah Meng, Penang Seafood Restaurant, Two Chefs Eating Place (Commonwealth), Xin Yuan Ji (Bugis), Zai Shun Curry Fish Head, Two Chefs Eating Place (Sin Ming), Kaki Bukit 511 Market & Food Centre
Veronica Phua
Veronica Phua

The one dish you must try from Chef Chik (stall #01-36) at Haig Road Market Food Centre is this “Steamed Prawns in Garlic Sauce”. Perfectly-cooked crustaceans aside, it is the bed of #cheecheongfun arranged beneath that got my jaw meeting the floor. What a simple but smart idea - it adds so much to the dish because those silky-soft steamed rice rolls end up absorbing the sweet prawn juices and insanely fragrant garlic sauce. I couldn’t stop eating them once I got started. It’s pretty much a one-dish meal when you think about it.

Do note this stall has unusual operating days and hours. They are only open from Wednesdays to Saturdays and while lunch is served from 11.30am to 2.30pm, dinner is a brief and rather awkward window of 4pm to 5.30pm.

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If you are considering “zi char” for takeaway or delivery, @kengengkee should be at the top of your list. My recent dinner there was very satisfying as usual. Based on that meal, these are the dishes by Head Chef & Co-owner Wayne and his team that I feel are worth ordering because they should travel well too:

1. Salted Egg Squid (small: $18) - The slightly chewy rings of squid are evenly coated in a dryish style of slightly spicy, creamy salted egg paste. Highly addictive (especially with a cold beer).

2. “Hae Chor” (Prawn Rolls) - Wrapped in delicate, thin beancurd skin is a generous amount of juicy and tasty filling composed of minced prawns, pork and water chestnut. I had three at one go because yeah, they’re totally irresistible.

3. Coffee Pork Ribs (small: $15) - Hand on my heart, KEK does one of the best renditions around. Theirs feature large, boneless pieces of meat that are unfailingly tender, fragrant and delicious from a sweet and rich caramelly coffee marinate.

4. “Har Jeong Gai” (small: $12) - The prawn paste chicken is quite literally a flavourbomb on bones, so be warned, they are easy to overeat.

5. “Nai Bai” with garlic (small: $8) - A simple yet tasty stirfry.

6. Sambal French Beans with Minced Pork (small: $8) - Crisp, juicy vegetable with some meat and a bit of a spicy kick is appetising for sure.

There is one other key thing that can’t be “dabao-ed” and that is the warm and friendly service by the other Co-owner Paul Liew who runs the front-of-house. I look forward to experiencing it first-hand again once this situation with the coronavirus improves and we can all return to dining out with peace of mind.

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@kengengkee (also known as "KEK Seafood") is a MICHELIN Plate Restaurant I am familiar with as it’s one of my family favourites for “zi char”. Seeing forever-cheerful Paul, his brother, Head Wayne and the rest of their family never fails to spark joy.
Having dined at KEK Seafood several times, I obviously have my must-haves, of which the Claypot Liver is tops. It is imperative to be enjoyed in the unique KEK style, that is with plain white rice popped in and given a good stir. Trust me, you do not know how sublime liver can be until you‘ve tried this.
Apart from having a very good supplier because the liver tastes really fresh, the kitchen team treats the cooking of the liver like a science to ensure it arrives perfectly cooked (it has to be soft!) on the customer’s table. So if the customer is seated in the air-conditioned area, which happens to be twice as far from the kitchen as a customer seated in the al fresco section, cooking time is halved. This is because they take into consideration that the liver will continue to cook in the claypot as it’s being carried all the way there by the wait staff. Honestly, I was so impressed when I heard this.

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H O S T E D
I am always on the lookout for new “zichar” places to take my parents, so when an invitation to try “Lai Bao” was extended to me by Brand Cellar PR agency, I accepted.

Like many “zi char” joints around Singapore, this too is located within a coffeeshop in the heartlands (Toa Payoh to be exact). Their branding is quite striking though and is easy to spot. The menu was planned for my group of four pax so we didn’t choose the items.

Below are the dishes I would order if I happen to visit #LaiBaosg again:

1. Ginger Chicken (Half: $6) - Served cold, it‘s the ginger sauce spread all over that makes this dish very tasty. I would not go so far as to say the chicken was perfectly cooked but at least the breast was not dry or stringy.

2. Lai Bao Wok-Fried Fine Beans (small: $7) - One of my favourites was this stirfry of crunchy beans topped with strips of crispy yam.

3. Deep Fried Teochew Duck Fritters (small: $8) - I wasn’t aware it contained duck because the taste wasn’t obvious but that didn’t stop me from reaching out for one piece after next. Pretty addictive.

4. Sixties Fish Head Charcoal Steamboat (small, grouper: $15) - I liked the sweetness of the collagen-rich soup and that it arrived flooded in long cabbage, meat rolls, tofu, black fungus, baby tomatoes, seaweed and yam. Before being added, the chopped up pieces of fish head had been fried so as to impart more flavour. Don’t expect to find chunky pieces of fish meat in here since it is the head that’s used.

5. Crisp Fried Aubergine & Pork Floss (small: $7) - Prepared in a fragrant, dry-style, this was another dish everyone enjoyed.

Would I return? Yes, but only if I am in the area because frankly, we are pretty spoilt for choice when it comes to good “zichar” options in Singapore.

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H O S T E D
Tucked away at one end of [email protected] is the latest-to-open outlet of New Ubin. It is located within an al fresco food court and when you visit in the evening, they are the only tenant in operation so seating is plentiful.
The menu planned for the six of us featured a mix of their popular signatures and a few dishes that were new to me.
I found the chargrilled foie gras satay with raspberry sauce tasty and rather novel. It’s a great item to share as a starter. Ditto the caramelised, house-smoked pork collar which was a tad chewy but still enjoyable.
My personal favourite of the night was the green dragon vegetables stirfried in New Ubin’s signature sambal cinchalok and petai sauce. It’s spicy, tangy and in my opinion, shiok to the max.
The platter of USDA “Choice” Ribeye plus potato wedges, sautéed onions and sauces, served with a big portion of “Heart Attack” Fried Rice, was as usual, a crowd-pleaser. Beef and flavourful rice are always a satisfying combo.
It did meet its match in the Ubin Nasi Lemak, the first dish to ever come out from their own test kitchen. Although some parts of the rice we were served was a little hard, there‘s no denying its fragrance. The accompaniments did not fall short either with the ayam bakar and cuttlefish sambal being very tasty. So too the condiments of fried egg, fresh cucumber, ikan bilis and ikan asin (salted fish). The sweetish sambal was addictive and mixed well with the rice.
Unfortunately, the Charcoal Fish Head Steamboat wasn’t quite up my alley as the soup was light and slightly sourish. I prefer the richer opaque style personally.
If you love crabs and are keen to try something different, they do a version of the crustaceans stirfried with whole roasted garlic that‘s pretty decent.
Besides the festive dessert of Christmas stollen, we also had the gula melaka caramelised bananas with housemade coconut ice-cream. I really enjoyed the ice-cream a lot as it had shreds of coconut flesh buried in it

#Noshtalgia is my mash-up of the words “nosh” which means “food” and “nostalgia”. I created it to refer to food I grew up eating. Like pork chop, a dish which I think many families have their own version of. My maternal grandma use to cook her hammered-flat, cream cracker crumbs-coated and fried pork with potatoes, cloves, star anise and cinnamon. It looked and tasted completely different from the one with tomato sauce most people are familiar with. Not quite sure how her recipe came about but I did enjoy it very much. T.H. on the other hand, is on a mission of sorts to find the best rendition of the pork chop with tomato sauce. The one at “Prince Coffee House” on Beach Road is not bad. Although I thought the sauce was rather one-dimensional, there’s French fries, tomato pieces and corn kernels tossed in with the crunchy slices of pork.

M E D I A S H O O T
I had accompanied Alicia for a video shoot for Burpple at this “zi char” place tucked away in the light industrial estate in Upper Thomson area and concluded it to be a place I would return as a paying customer with my parents in tow.
Opened for business earlier this year, “Tian Wei Seafood” is a spacious eatery that is well-ventilated and cool.
In terms of whether they are the first in Singapore to come up with the “Mala Crab”, it is hard to verify but frankly, I don’t think it matters. What’s more important is whether the dish tastes good and I think theirs does. They prepared our portion with a medium level of spiciness and it turned out to really shiok. There was sufficient fragrance and hotness in the sauce, but at the same time, it didn’t overpower the inherent sweetness of the meaty Sri Lankan crab. I like that they cooked the dish pretty “wet” so there was a lot of “mala” liquid to sip on.

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S P O N S O R E D
If you want to escape the haze, are in the Eastern end of Singapore on a weekday and feel like having “zi char” in cool comfort, Tiger Street Lab is a destination you can check out.
Located on level five of Jewel at Changi Airport, they have collaborated with MICHELIN-plated Keng Eng Kee on a “street food” menu for this season (it is available until end October). Part of this menu includes a selection of thoughtfully-designed quick-lunch options for weekdays. At the tasting, I picked the rice bowl with Sweet & Sour Pork and found it decent for what it is - a simple meal. The sauce coating the bonesless strips of meat was well balanced and appetising.
If you can get away with drinking alcohol during lunch, perhaps a bottle of the newly launched Tiger Crystal might interest you.

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In 7 out of 10 discussions with my parents on where to eat, the name of this eatery is brought up.
Sprawling across a few units in the basement of the Golden Mile Tower, “Golden Mile Thien Kee Steamboat” is the perfect place to tackle cravings for Hainanese chicken rice, steamboat, “zi char” and freshly-grilled satay in one fell swoop. A family-run establishment, the friendly and vigilant bosses can always be seen hovering, ready to lend a hand where needed.
The chicken of their chicken rice is decent but it is the rice that I really like. It is on the oily side but it sure is tasty. In fact, I’m happy to spam it with their lip-smacking, slightly salty chilli sauce and have it just like that.
They do their steamboat the traditional way. So forget about selecting a broth because there is only a standard clear one. As for the ingredients, there is no choice involved. Only elimination. Unless you tell them what to leave out, the standard mixed plate of prawns, sliced fish, sea cucumber, fish maw, sliced pork, pig’s liver and cockles will land on your table. Ditto a plate piled with Chinese cabbage and a small bowl with a raw egg still in its shell. One such set is suitable for two, so a party of four should double it. Of course, nothing complements the ingredients cooked in the steamboat better than the chicken rice chilli dip.
We like to supplement our meal by getting on a stirfried vegetable from the “zi char” menu. Sometimes, an omelette too.
Although we didn’t order on our recent visit, this eatery also serves satay that we find tasty. Their grilled meats are consistently well-marinated and tender.

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Having enjoyed this eatery’s famous Moonlight Hor Fun on a previous visit, I wanted to try something else for our meal-closing noodles, which is how the Fried Mee Sua ended up on our table.
Light and a little fluffy, the strands of noodles were suffused with “wok hei” and a rich flavour. Obviously, whatever stock Chef Wayne splashes on during the cooking process was of a superior kind. The amount of “liao” (ingredients: prawns, pork, squid and egg) thrown in was also impressive. It hit the ideal noodle-to-“liao” ratio for me, which means I never had a bite where it was mee sua and mee sua only.

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On my third visit here in the space of a few weeks, this time with friends visiting from Hongkong, we ordered the “Black Pepper Crab” as they had a craving for it.
The sauce here departs a little from the norm. Unlike the typical black pepper sauce I’ve had at most restaurants and other “zi char” eateries which tends to differ in terms of how peppery it is, this tasted more complex and leaned towards the savoury. I found out from chatting with co-owner Paul that his brother, Head Chef Wayne adds fried curry leaves and “hae bee” (dried shrimp) to theirs. No wonder it’s so unique. It had us licking our fingers after we were done licking it off the crab shells. #toogoodtowaste.

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After seeing @kengengkee post about their Steamed Crab on Instagram, my parents and I decided to give it a try when we were there for dinner last Sunday. Well, we loved how its natural sweetness shone through in this style of cooking. There was nothing too rich or overpowering because the crustacean was topped simply with egg white and finished with a splash of Chinese wine. For freshness of crab, there is hardly a better litmus test either, and KEK Seafood Alexandra passed with flying colours.

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Follow me on Instagram (@veronicaphua) for much more content! 😊

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