For a taste of traditional Chinese cooking, head to Kok Sen Restaurant

Despite being chopped into smaller bite-sized pieces, the har cheong gai (belacan or shrimp paste chicken) at Kok Sen deserves two thumbs up; you can almost smell the infused paste from tables away. – Pictures by James Tan
Despite being chopped into smaller bite-sized pieces, the har cheong gai (belacan or shrimp paste chicken) at Kok Sen deserves two thumbs up; you can almost smell the infused paste from tables away. – Pictures by James Tan

SINGAPORE, April 19 — Still in the spirit of scouting for noteworthy cze char restaurants (eateries serving different Chinese-style dishes with rice or noodles) in Singapore, a few sources led me to two well-established places along Keong Saik Road: Kok Sen and Tong Ah.

Keong Saik Road, named after a renowned businessman who contributed significantly to the Chinese community in the earlier part of last century, used to be a notorious red light district before it was transformed into a modern commercial hub with popular restaurants, art galleries and retail stores.

As the area lies within an urban conservation area, the façades of the two- to three-storey shoplots along Keong Saik Road are still maintained with primarily heritage elements, a sight to behold if you are here prior to sundown and taking a stroll along the relatively short street.

A staple now when it comes to cze char meals in Singapore, the sweet and sour pork at Kok Sen was delectably coated in a tangy sauce
A staple now when it comes to cze char meals in Singapore, the sweet and sour pork at Kok Sen was delectably coated in a tangy sauce

Both of the restaurants I mentioned earlier had strong followings of their own; Tong Ah has been around for more than 70 years (!) but has since moved from its original iconic space at the junction of Teck Lim Road and Keong Saik Road to a smaller, one shoplot space diagonally opposite of Kok Sen which occupies two lots to cater to the frenzied crowd over lunch and dinner.

While Tong Ah is renowned more for its kaya and butter toast with coffee served (optionally) with a dollop of butter than their cze char dishes, Kok Sen focuses solely on the strengths of its cze char items.  I am not sure though if Tong Ah was there first or Kok Sen.

Nevertheless, we decided to hop over to Kok Sen on a Sunday evening at the prime dining time of 7pm just to push our luck despite warnings from various quarters to either be there super early (they open for dinner from 5pm onwards) or make a reservation (which may not work to secure you a seat sometimes).

Fu Yong egg omelette was a nice throwback to days when a simple dish of omelette filled with whatever’s available from the fridge was all it took to make a meal
Fu Yong egg omelette was a nice throwback to days when a simple dish of omelette filled with whatever’s available from the fridge was all it took to make a meal

And lo and behold, as predicted, the place was swarmed but not to the point of hopelessness yet, as we saw diners at a few tables already cleaning up the last piece of crab, polishing off the hor fun (rice noodles) spiked with large prawns or scooping up the last bits of the starchy gravy from the claypot holding pieces of their famed yong tau foo.

The service level at Kok Sen was far from satisfactory though; there was an omnipresent sense of chaos despite the sheer number of workers behind the wok and service line. We were ushered to the wrong table and had to backtrack to the sidewalk in a hurry, orders were taken late and we were informed that some of our dishes ran out after waiting a good half an hour.

Oh, the total time spent waiting for our dishes was a good one hour by the way.

Nevertheless, we went in good spirits and with each other’s company, time flowed instead of trickling by painfully. But just be prepared for the tedious wait and not arrive hungry like a wolf.

Looks aside, the hoong siew tau foo or braised beancurd with vegetables in gravy was a humble dish masterfully whipped up; redolent with flavours from the sweet and fresh vegetables
Looks aside, the hoong siew tau foo or braised beancurd with vegetables in gravy was a humble dish masterfully whipped up; redolent with flavours from the sweet and fresh vegetables

The claypot yong tau foo, which is supposedly their most famous dish, had run out, much to our dismay. So you need to arrive much earlier than us for a chance to sample these.

Luckily the har cheong gai (belacan/shrimp paste fried chicken) was available and arrived piping hot and crispy; complete with a calamansi lime to add a fresh zest to the otherwise greasy platter of fried chicken wings. The flavour was right; the shrimp paste permeated into the flesh, while the skin had the right degree of crispiness without dripping with oil.

The sweet and sour pork and claypot brinjal with minced pork were two of the dishes that stood out. The sweet and sour pork was pleasantly tangy with the addition of chopped pineapples, tomatoes, chilies, onion and bell pepper although I wish that the batter-coated fried pork was a little bit crunchier. The claypot brinjal with minced pork was an amazing complement to white rice, the moreish gravy was excellent, infused with a briny finish from the salted fish.

We resorted to two egg dishes since most of the other items had run out; including the aforementioned yong tau foo, fish and even greens, which was a surprise. The Fu Yong egg omelette was not packed with ingredients but still was skillfully pan fried to a light charred, crisp exterior and studded with small shrimps. The other egg dish we had was the steamed sam wong dan or three eggs (chicken egg, salted egg and century egg), a safe choice for adults and kids alike.

Claypot brinjal with minced pork; easily one of the most comforting dishes one could have on a rainy evening
Claypot brinjal with minced pork; easily one of the most comforting dishes one could have on a rainy evening

And lastly, we were recommended the hoong siew tau foo — a braised beancurd dish with gravy and lots of vegetables including juicy cabbage, carrots, mushrooms and snow peas. This was another simple yet excellent dish; although the beancurd used was more of the traditional type that is available commercially and not homemade, I believe.

All in all, the dinner was satisfying and we walked away paying about S$15 per person; a reasonable sum despite the popularity and prime location. However, the wait is a test of one’s patience so you might want to plan ahead either by reserving a table, coming earlier than the crowd (before 6pm would be fine) or come on a weekday evening. Even then, there’s no guarantee of a smooth-sailing, half-an-hour meal actually.

But there is always a price to be paid for authentic Chinese cooking preserved for three generations, right? Next stop: Tong Ah could be the place where I will stop by for a taste of their traditional kopitiam-style breakfast. Or their coffee ribs come dinner hours.

Kok Sen Restaurant @ 30-32, Keong Saik Road, 089137 Singapore. Opens for lunch from 12pm–2.30pm, and dinner from 5pm–11.30pm daily.

James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)