Cheap & Good: Affordable, restaurant-worthy food? You are in Luck

ST VIDEO: HEDY KHOO
A mini feast good for four, including the signature sambal stingray and salted fish stir-fried with bean sprouts.
A mini feast good for four, including the signature sambal stingray and salted fish stir-fried with bean sprouts.ST PHOTO: HEDY KHOO
Salted Fish with Bean Sprouts ($5).
Salted Fish with Bean Sprouts ($5).ST PHOTO: HEDY KHOO
Sambal Fried Mee ($4).
Sambal Fried Mee ($4).ST PHOTO: HEDY KHOO
Crispy Deep-fried Fish ($10).
Crispy Deep-fried Fish ($10).ST PHOTO: HEDY KHOO

Where in Singapore can you find restaurant-worthy dishes at prices better than those across the Causeway?

Luck, a tiny hawker stall tucked in a corner of Upper Boon Keng Market and Food Centre, serves gems like Crispy Deep-fried Fish ($10), Chilli Braised Fish ($12) and Salted Fish With Bean Sprouts ($5).

For five dishes, without rice, the bill came up to $43. It is a mouthwatering mini feast that can easily feed four persons, especially if you order rice (50 cents a plate).

This is a place for true foodies who can give up air-conditioned comfort and service for the sake of good food.

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Stall owner and chef William Lim, 55, is a one-man operation, doing everything himself, from slicing chillies to washing the dishes.

The Crispy Deep-fried Fish features garoupa (flat price of $12 for a fish weighing 400g to 500g), which he butterflies, dips in flour, then lowers into his small wok of bubbling oil and allows to sizzle to a crisp. He then whips up a savoury soya sauce-based gravy which he pours over the fish.

The butterflied fish could easily pass off as a restaurant dish. The fins and tail are crispy enough to eat and the meat is tender and moist.

The Chilli Braised Fish (flat price of $12 for a fish ranging from 500g to 800g) is a fat meaty angkoli, which is pan-fried then braised in a spicy gravy aromatic with curry leaves.

Mr Lim, who learnt to make fishballs at his cousin's stall, picked up his cooking skills and techniques at a seafood restaurant where he worked for 15 years from the age of 26. He started out as a kitchen apprentice before becoming a chef.

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Luck, which he opened earlier this month, is his first solo venture.

He specialises in xiao chao (small stir-fries in Mandarin) - a category of Chinese cooking which occupies the spot between economy rice and zi char.

At this stall, you will not see the huge cast-iron woks that are a familiar sight at zi char stalls.

  • LUCK

    01-83, Upper Boon Keng Market and Food Centre, Block 17 Upper Boon Keng Road; open: 6.30am to 2pm; 4 to 9.30pm daily. Stir-fried dishes available only from 11am to 2pm, 5 to 9.30pm

    Rating: 3.5 stars

Mr Lim's key equipment is his trusty one-handle, 33cm-diameter deep wok, which he uses to cook most of his dishes.

Grilled dishes like his signature Sambal Stingray ($12 for small, $15 for medium and $18 for large) are cooked on a cast-iron grill plate.

He prepares the sambal paste from scratch, grinding up to 20kg of ingredients including dried chilli, dried shallots, dried prawns, dried anchovies and candlenuts twice a week.

He has a tight selection of dishes, including Sambal Fried Mee ($4), which he cooks to order.

The fishcake in the noodles is surprisingly tender and tasty. Mr Lim prepares the fishcake himself using yellowtail fish meat which he adds to factory-supplied fish paste.

He also uses his own concoction of a sweet and sour sauce - the same one he prepares for sweet and sour fish - to fry the noodles. The tang of the sauce helps eliminate the alkaline taste of the noodles, he says.

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His Salted Fish With Bean Sprouts is a showcase of his grasp of cooking time and seasoning skills. The crunchy bean sprouts are perfectly cooked through without being limp or tasting overly raw.

Despite such intense labour involved, Mr Lim insists he has no intention of increasing his prices.

He says in Mandarin: "At my age, I don't feel the need to earn more than what I need to keep my business going. My hope is to provide good food at economical prices so that more people can enjoy my small dishes and get a taste of the heart I put into cooking them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 31, 2019, with the headline 'Affordable, restaurant-worthy food? You are in Luck '. Print Edition | Subscribe