The first time I ever had a meal at a cze cha eatery (no frills street restaurants that cook and fry anything they can), was way back when the working class wore baggy pleated khaki pants with pajamas collared starched white short sleeved shirts that had two patch pockets. It was rare to see the womenfolk working then. Go figure when it was. Those were also the days when Albert Street was lined with a collection of push cart cze cha kitchens that were flanked by two open fire woks and often it was shoosh-ing and shiiish-ing away as each dish was being tossed in it. The menu then was predictable – the usual fried rice and hor fun, popular Cantonese soups, tofu, eggs, steamed fish, a range of stir fried greens and they’ll make something out of the roasted chickens and pork that’s hanging on the cart. Their offerings were distinctly different from the old shiny classic Chinese restaurants like Red Star or Lai Wah (both, still around today, as they were, as if time had stood still)
That was then. Today, such operations have moved into residential coffeeshops and hawker centres. Same old attitude- fast, cheap and good, save for the menu. Golden fragrant crabs, prawn tempura with sesame mayo, silken tofu with golden mushroom sauce, fried honey glazed chicken nuggets with garlic chips, butter spareribs – all, coming out of a coffeeshop cze cha kitchen (then again, it may as well sound like it came off the menu of a fancy boutique Chinese restaurant.) The lines have blurred (only the pricing sets it apart).
Two childhood pals came here from Ipoh, Malaysia some 16 years ago to make their mark in the makan kingdom here. They paid their dues and slaved in small and renowned kitchens about town. They began as hawk-eyed kitchen helpers with the minds of an engineer. Some ten years later, they gave in to a calling and decided to set up their own makan stage. Both Mr Lee Kao Shung and Mr Lam Chan Wah jumped at the chance of entrepreneurship in a little corner coffeeshop in Commonwealth Avenue area. That’s no big shake. Many have taken that path and went missing or got lost. They are just another statistic, until you look at their menu. There are close to a hundred items and the stuff mentioned above are just the icing on their laminated A4 sized menu neatly sectioned into meats, soups, noodles and rice, vegetables and seafood. It includes sharksfin and off menu items like lobster noodles (when available). That’s no big shake either.
One stealthy night we decided to order the drunken cockles ($6), because I had no idea what it was. The shellfish came half shelled, open faced and cold, and was doused with Thai inspired sweet-sour-savoury sauce with red chillis with chopped garlic and spring onions – cold, too. Bravely hiding behind the hepatitis jabs that’s still swimming in me, I tucked in a blink. It shook my palate and made a difference. It came clean and shiny as they hand shucked them and ran it through cold water. There was not a hint of sand or mud and the cold, sweet, spicy and piquant sauce takes the experience to another dimension. Then they brought the butter spareribs ($8)- didn’t sound very promising but it was visual delight- golden ribs dusted in buttered white milk powder decorated with crispy green curry leaves. It went is tender, sweet, buttery and lightly spiced by the curry leaves. I never saw nor ate anything like it. Lurved it.
Then they ushered in their claypot assam lemak fish head curry ($18). A fresh white steamed snapper head barely popping up above a very thick tamarind curry covered with lady fingers, brinjal and tomato slices greened with a sprinkling of spring onions. This is their blue plate special. Families come from as far as Tampines and Ang Mo Kio to devour it. I suppose they wouldn’t, if it was done the way I liked it- with a punchier hint of tamarind. I love it when the sour, spiciness, chillies and the lemak makes me squint at first bite. But it didn’t fail, just like the fried silken egg tofu in golden mushroom sauce ($8). If you are not a fan of cockles and lemak curries, this will win you over, especially when it comes textured with minced pork and a thick brown oyster sauce.
These two chefs can cook.