From the Straits Times Archives: Family-run old-school eateries that are still a hit

The old premises of Fatty Weng in Guillemard Road may be history, but the restaurant is still going strong at its new location in Smith Street.
The old premises of Fatty Weng in Guillemard Road may be history, but the restaurant is still going strong at its new location in Smith Street.PHOTO: ST FILE

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on April 17, 2011, and has been updated to reflect how some restaurants have either moved or closed down.

Forget swanky restaurants with perfectly plated dishes cooked by celebrity chefs. With the world changing at breakneck speed, sometimes one just needs comfort food on faded melamine crockery.

Old, in Singapore, can be gold.

Those hungry for nostalgia can still find family-run eateries and Chinese zi char restaurants, some boasting more than 50 years of heritage, here.

From Fatty Weng in Smith Street, now run by the family's second generation; and Pariaman Warong Nasi in North Bridge Road, which cooks beef rendang using charcoal; to Chinatown Tai Chong Kok Confectionery which specialises in handmade egg tarts.

 

Life! checks out 7 traditional eateries here that serve unpretentious food to loyal customers.

Other Chinese zi char restaurants such as Beng Hiang Restaurant in Amoy Street and Hung Kang Restaurant in North Canal Road may have more modern furnishing, but customers that LifeStyle spoke to agreed that the owners of such eateries have maintained the quality and integrity of their old-school offerings since Day One.

Housewife Teresa Kang dines at Hung Kang Restaurant at least once a month. She says: "Even though it looks a bit more posh than other zi char outlets, I still enjoy the authentic Teochew food. It's not so much about the setting, but about the consistent taste."

Interior designer Hamdan Rahmanudin, 55, who has been a patron of coffee shop Pariaman Warong Nasi for more than 30 years, says: "The food looks the same. It reminds me of the days when I was still a kid and running around."

He adds: "When we eat here, three generations of my family are present. My mother, who is in her 70s, would travel all the way from Clementi by MRT just so she can eat here."

Ms Yanty Sulastry Emrin, 37, a waitress at the coffee shop, says: "I don't think old customers will stop coming back even if we renovate the shop. I think they will come back for the food, because the quality and taste will remain consistent."

Retiree Anthony Heng, 72, appreciates that most of the traditional eateries are run as a family affair.

He says: "The owners are very friendly and give good service. It's more comfortable eating at these older coffee shops."

Mr Tham Wing Cheong, 44, one of the owners of Chinatown Tai Chong Kok Confectionary, says: "Sometimes, customers who stop by will tell their children, 'This is what I used to eat when I was young'.

"Nowadays, young people don't go for this kind of traditional pastries and biscuits anymore."

The fear - and thrill - about these old-school eateries is that one must visit them before they vanish or move to fancy locations.

For instance, dim sum eatery Hua Nam Restaurant at Upper Thomson Road will close at the end of March after 49 years.

Its third-generation owners told Shin Min Daily News that they are retiring.

Dine out on a memory, while you can.

FATTY WENG


Mr Derek Lai, executive director of Fatty Weng Restaurant. PHOTO: ST FILE

Founded in: 1967

Who: Mr Derek Lai, 37, son of the original Fatty Weng Lai Foo Weng, 74, runs the restaurant

Specialities: Deep-fried soon hock in oyster sauce (from $20), pork ribs ($12 to $20), pan-fried beehoon ($6 to $12)

Where: 37 Smith Street, tel: 6221-3822

Open: 11am to 11pm daily

2015 update: Fatty Weng's iconic Guillemard Road location may be a thing of the past, but the restaurant itself is still going strong.

While signature dishes such as deep-fried soon hock fish and honey pork ribs remain, owner Derek Lai and his head chef Chan Wah Heng, who has been with the restaurant for more than 20 years, come up with innovative new dishes every six months.

Mr Lai told The Straits Times in 2015 that they wanted to inject fun and variety into the menu of about 100 dishes and to attract a younger generation of diners.

"While it is important to retain the traditional flavours of our food, we have to adapt to modern lifestyles in order to move with the times and attract more customers in this competitive dining scene," he said.

HUNG KANG RESTAURANT


PHOTO: HUNG KANG RESTAURANT

Founded in: 1962, moved to current location in 2002

Who: Poh Heng Jewellery management

Specialities: Teochew braised superior shark's fin ($35 a bowl, right), sliced goose meat ($15), Teochew steamed pomfret ($35)

Where: 28 North Canal Road, 01-01, Poh Heng Building, tel: 6533-5300

Open: 11.30am to 3pm (lunch), 6 to 10pm (dinner) daily

No new innovations or East-West fusion food. That remains the key mantra for Poh Heng Jewellery's Hung Kang Restaurant which has been serving authentic Teochew cuisine for almost 50 years.

Poh Heng took over ownership of the restaurant in the 1970s, when the other shareholders pulled out.

Even in their modern location on North Canal Road, the dishes stay true to the company's Teochew roots and draw in crowds of all ages, with chef Ngu Eng Mong, 55, heading the kitchen.

The restaurant's manager Mah Boon Ei, 67, says: "We have married couples returning to celebrate their 30th or 40th wedding anniversaries as well as three-generation families celebrating their parents' birthdays every year."

Retiree Peter Ang, 65, says: "Eating at Hung Kang Restaurant is a family affair for us, especially when we want to celebrate birthdays. I always tell my children not to take me to fancy Western restaurants. After eating at those places, I would still be hungry."

SIN HOI SAI EATING HOUSE


Sin Hoi Sai's Tiong Bahru branch. PHOTO: ST FILE

Founded in: The Tiong Bahru outlet opened in 1978. The second outlet opened in East Coast Road three years later

Who: Madam Yap Sor Khim, 54, runs the East Coast outlet while her two sisters operate the Tiong Bahru branch

Specialities: Salted egg prawns ($15 to $30, right), Guinness pork ribs ($8 to $15), special Indonesian chicken ($10 to $20)

Where: 187 East Coast Road, tel: 6440-6956; 55 Tiong Bahru Road, 01-59, tel: 6223-0810

Open: 5.30pm to 3.30am daily (East Coast Road), 5am to 5pm daily (Tiong Bahru Road)

Owner Yap Sor Khim's trick to ensure her eating houses' longevity is this: Work tirelessly 365 days a year. She says in Mandarin: "I don't even think about being tired. I just want more customers to come. The crowds give me energy and before I know it, the night is over."

Her younger brother Yap Seng Lye (above, foreground), 49, heads the kitchen and says he probably can whip up the dishes blindfolded. From the lips of another man, it might sound like a boast, but he is just stating a fact.

The siblings update the menu with new dishes every few months. One recent favourite is salted egg prawns. Madam Yap says: "Customers are becoming more health-conscious and they will ask for lesser oil, salt or sugar."

Her husband Seow Chon Fat, 65, helps out in the outlet and her son, Seow Kian Hoon, 14, a student at Temasek Secondary School, helps to take orders during the school holidays.

Ms Janet Loh, 50, and her family have been dining at Sin Hoi Sai for many years.

"We generally order the same dishes, such as cereal prawns and hotplate deer meat, and the taste has always been consistent over the years. Hopefully they keep the outlet exactly the way it is," she says.

SINGAPURA SEAFOOD RESTAURANT


Cold crab from Singapura Seafood Restaurant. PHOTO: SINGAPURA SEAFOOD RESTAURANT

Founded in: 1988 at Roxy Square in Katong, moved to current location in 1996

Who: Ms Valerie Tang, in her late 50s, runs it together with her husband Chan Eng Hua, 60. The restaurant was founded by her late father, Mr Tang Seng Eng

Specialities: Fragrant crispy duck ($24 & $28, above), cold crab ($5.50 for 100g, above right), claypot red wine chicken ($12 to $30), Fuzhou fried noodles ($10 to $20)

Where: Block 9 Selegie House, Selegie Road, 01-31, tel: 6336-3255

Open: 11am to 2.30pm (lunch), 6 to 10.30pm (dinner) from Tuesdays to Sundays, closed on Mondays

Since Ms Tang's father started preparing cold crab in his own Foochow restaurant in the 1970s, the crustacean has become a signature dish of the restaurant.

Now, she prepares it herself and also makes the chilli and her own fish sauce. She says: "Food must have its own traditional style of preparation. If we are not consistent, customers can tell immediately and will not hesitate to complain."

The restaurant gets about 10kg of crabs daily. The crabs sell out well before closing time on some days.

While some things have stayed the same at the restaurant, other things have changed over time. She says: "We used to cook our crispy duck till even the bones were crispy enough to eat. Now, we don't do it unless customers request it. The younger generation would never eat the bones."

Retiree Margaret Lee, 62, says: "My family and I dine here at least once every fortnight and we must have the cold crab. I like that whenever I eat here, I feel just as comfortable as I am at home."

BENG HIANG RESTAURANT


Mr Ng Han Kim, co-founder of Beng Hiang Restaurant. PHOTO: DAVID YIP

Founded in: 1978

Who: Mr Ng Han Kim, 70, runs the restaurant with his daughter Hwei Ping, in her early 30s

Specialities: Spiced sausages and prawn balls ($8 to $20), fried oysters with egg (from $12), fish maw thick soup with crab meat (from $18), traditional Hokkien noodles ($7 to $16), steamed bread with braised brisket ($14 for 10 pieces)

Where: Block 135 Jurong Gateway Road #02-337

Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm (lunch), 6 to 9.30pm (dinner) daily

2016 update: Hokkien restaurant Beng Hiang may look like a modern Chinese restaurant, complete with calligraphy and paintings.

But its food is steeped in tradition - down to the old-fashioned, flowery melamine plates they are served on.

On weekends, families descend upon the place, although the lunch clientele has changed drastically after Beng Hiang moved from its CBD location in Amoy Street to Jurong in June 2015.

Fortunately, the restaurant has a big pool of die-hard regulars who persist in their quest for traditional Hokkien dishes.

Managing director Ng Han Kim told the Business Times in January last year that the move was a "purely financial decision". The rent for the Amoy Street premises had increased from S$40,000 per month more than two decades ago to S$120,000 in 2015.

"I was lucky when I started looking for an alternative site," said Mr Ng.

"A friend who owns the current space made an offer I couldn't refuse, and Jurong had, and still has, a huge population of Hokkiens living in the area."

CHINATOWN TAI CHONG KOK CONFECTIONERY


Mr Tham Wing Hue, owner of Chinatown Tai Chong Kok Confectionery baking with his sons Wing Woh (left) and Wing Cheong (right). PHOTO: ST FILE

Founded in: 1940s. It moved to Bukit Merah main branch in 1991

Who: Mr Tham Wing Hue, 68

Specialities: Flaky egg tart ($1), egg muffin with red bean filling ($1), traditional Chinese pastries such as tau sar pia (90 cents) and wife biscuit ($1)

Where: Block 122 Bukit Merah Lane 1, 01-62, tel: 6270-8994; Block 5, Banda Street, 02-72, tel: 6223-0456

Open: 9am to 8pm, daily (Bukit Merah), 9am to 7pm, daily (Banda Street)

For 20 years until 1993, Mr Tham woke at 4.30am every day to start baking. With just one helper, he would take more than 6½ hours to prepare his sweet offerings.

Now semi-retired, he leaves most of the baking to his sons, Wing Cheong, 44, and Wing Woh, 42.

He says: "While I still help my sons with some of the baking that requires less strength, most of the running of the shop is left to them."

Since taking over the confectionery's operations in 1993, the two brothers have followed the recipes passed down by their father.

The pastries are handmade twice daily.

Wing Cheong, a trained mechanical engineer, does not regret choosing to go into the family business.

He says: "While there is definitely a sense of responsibility to the family, I also enjoy baking.

"I like the smell, the finished product and the sense of satisfaction when a customer compliments the food. It makes everything worth it."

Customer Janice Lee, a 33-year-old housewife, likes the egg tarts made here as they are "not too sweet" and the crusts "are very crispy".

She says: "Egg tarts from other bakeries just don't taste right. An old confectionery like this one still does it best."

WARONG NASI PARIAMAN


Patrons at Warong Nasi Pariaman. PHOTO: PARIAMAN

Founded in: 1948

Who: Mr Abdul Mumaf Isrin, 51, and Mr Jumrin Isrin, 57

Specialities: Nasi padang, ayam gulai ($2.30), ayam bakar ($4.60), beef rendang ($2.30)

Where: 738 North Bridge Road, tel: 6292-5958, 6292-2374

Open: 7.30am to 10.30pm, closed on Sundays and public holidays

Head chef Jumrin Isrin sticks closely to the nasi padang recipes he inherited from his father, Haji Isrin, who founded the eatery in 1948. He and his brother Abdul Mumaf took over the family business in 1988.

He says: "We still use charcoal to cook the ayam bakar and beef rendang. That's why the standard of our food remains the same. Other food stalls rarely do that any more."

Long-term customers rave about the taste of the food that recalls the good old days. Retiree Anthony Heng, 72, a customer for more than 20 years, says: "Eating here reminds me of the past when people in the area were still living in kampungs. I really miss those times. People need to remember that this is the place to have traditional Muslim food."