Getting any group of Singaporeans, big or small, to agree on the perfect bak chor mee is well nigh impossible. Some like it hot, some like it really hot and others like it with enough vinegar to pucker the lips. There are even people who like it with ketchup.
In Simpang Bedok, bak chor mee fans have three stalls to choose from and soon, there will be a fourth.
I tried the cheapest bowl of dry mee pok with chilli from each of the three stalls one recent morning and here is the verdict.
MING FA FISHBALL
Where: 328 Bedok Road, open 8am to 11pm daily
Price: $4, $5
This is the last stall I hit and it turns out to be my favourite. Its chilli is the mildest of the three, but as I toss the noodles with the sauce, I also get whiffs of black vinegar, which is pretty much non-existent in the other bowls. It is instantly appetising.
Chilli heads will not like this mee pok because there is no spicy kick. However, it is a more well-rounded bowl. The palate is not assaulted by heat, so it can appreciate the tang of vinegar and the umami from the stewed mushrooms.
Ming Fa's mee pok is narrower and thinner than the other two stalls and the noodles are not stodgy.
Little touches distinguish it from the other bowls. The pork slices are not just blanched in hot water. These ones taste like they have been marinated with sesame oil and are juicy and tender. The scent of aromatic dried sole fish permeates the pork ball.
Although the liver is sliced almost paper thin, it is not in rigor mortis after a dunking in boiling water. Instead, the slices are tender. Quite a feat, really.
Like the other bowls, this has a scattering of crisp pork lard, which adds to the allure, at least for me.
My only complaint is the painfully salty soup.
JALAN TUA KONG LAU LIM
Where: 306 & 308 Bedok Road, tel: 6241-0201, open 7am to 5pm daily, closed on alternate Monday. It will be closed tomorrow.
Price: $4.50, $5.50, $6.50
My noodles appear in no time at the other stalls but even at 9.30am on a weekday, there is a 20-minute wait at Lau Lim.
The first taste that hits my palate is the chilli. It is very punchy and just takes over, muting the other flavours.
I notice with the first couple of mouthfuls that the noodles are slightly undercooked - a good move as the residual heat continues to cook them and they might become soggy towards the end. Lau Lim's noodles do not have that problem but the thick noodles are a little too stodgy for me. Perhaps that is why I prefer mee kia for bak chor mee.
The slices of pork are simply blanched and rather bland, although the large, springy fishballs are good. The soup served alongside has a natural sweetness from pork and is not at all salty.
My biggest problem is really with the chilli. It is just too overwhelming. However, for chilli heads, this might well be the ultimate bak chor mee.
JALAN TUA KONG AH LIM
Where: 324 Bedok Road, Kwek Seng Huat Eating House, open 6.45am to 9pm daily
Price: $4, $5, $6
Lau Lim's noodles deliver a chilli punch with velvet gloves, which is to say the chilli kick has a certain elegance to it, for want of a better word.
I think of Ah Lim's chilli as a bare knuckle punch. There is a raw vibe to the chilli that some might find thrilling. However, it overwhelms the palate.
A good amount of minced pork almost makes me forget that there is no sliced pork. And the fishballs, although smaller than the ones at Lau Lim, are not bad.
The soup has a sugary flavour that does not sit well with me.
Like the other bowls, the noodles do not clump up, which is to say the stalls are generous with the sauce and add a bit of stock to keep the strands well lubricated.
Lard bits add crunch, but in the end, I want a more nuanced bowl with more going on than hits of chilli.