If you eat zi char meals as often as I do, you figure out quickly that it is good to turn up early at these places.
Often, I am just ahead of many hungry people who practically take over the entire coffee shop.
This is the case at Casper Seafood in Whampoa West. After we snag a table and order, my sister goes off to the drinks stall and comes back saying that the other part of the coffee shop is full of people settling down at their tables, menus in hand.
As we see plate after plate of Tom Yam Fish Head ($22) coming out of the kitchen, we know we have ordered the right dish.
The fish is bathed in a tangy gravy thickened with coconut milk, which rounds off the tart edges of the gravy. Aside from the usual lady's fingers and brinjals, the cooks also add cabbage and French beans, making this a complete one-dish meal.
Casper's Prawn Paste Chicken ($8) is better than average. The cooks have a confident hand with the prawn paste, so it has more oomph than most zi char versions.
Claypot Tofu ($10) appears bubbling hot, with the egg cracked over it almost cooked. It is filled with deep-fried tofu, napa cabbage, carrot, snowpeas and roast pork slices. The portions are generous but the dish does not stand out from other zi char versions, all with nearly identical, beige-hued sauces.
Two vegetable dishes, however, are worth ordering again. Crispy yau mak choy ($8) is stir-fried very quickly with fermented beancurd and sliced chillies. I have had so many versions of the dish but the wok hei in this one is excellent. The sweet, funky fermented beancurd also makes it an umami bomb.
Gao Ki soup ($4) is a cut above most soups at zi char places. There is a generous amount of slightly bitter leaves from the wolfberry plant, minced pork, sliced canned mushrooms and tomato wedges. All these added ingredients give the soup some depth.
We also order Hainanese Pork Chop ($10) but the server brings us what looks like either sweet and sour pork or Pork Chop & Tangy Sauce from the menu. We remind her that we have ordered the Hainanese version but she insists that is what we have on the table.
I am sceptical but once I have a slice of the mystery pork, all is forgiven. The crumb-coated meat has been deep fried beautifully so that it has crispy burnt edges. The sauce also has a lovely tang to it.
Throughout the meal, we see customers coming in to get takeaways of fried rice and noodles. We order Seafood Horfun ($4) to try but are disappointed. The noodles lack wok hei and while the sauce is not gloopy, it is bland. The only things worth picking from the dish are the very fresh prawns and squid.
Stick to the other dishes and a fine meal can be had at Casper. I want to go back and see if I get the same dish when I order Hainanese pork chops again.
Block 34 Whampoa West, 01-67, tel: 6297-5350
Open: 11am to 2pm, 5 to 11.30pm, closed on alternate Mondays