Hawker ringers: Whose food is tops

Hawker ringers: Whose food is tops

For years, these hawkers toiled to establish a name and a following for themselves but, over time, their food legacy has been shadowed by infighting and feuds. The scions are setting up their own fiefdoms, often under the same name, sometimes within a stone's throw of one another. Taste testers Timothy Goh and Rei Kurohi enter the fray to see which version is really better.

Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle

Where: Block 466, Crawford Lane, #01-12
Opening hours: 9.30am-8pm daily, closed every 1st and 3rd Monday
Dish tried: Dry minced pork noodles (bak chor mee)
Cost: $5

Lau Dai Hua Minced Pork Noodle

Where: Food Opera@ION Orchard, #B4-03
Opening hours: 10am-10pm daily
Dish tried: Dry minced pork noodles (bak chor mee)
Cost: $5.50

This family feud has been chronicled even in The Straits Times.

In the 1930s, the late Tang Joon Teo started a pork noodle stall in Hill Street. For more than 40 years, his second son Chay Seng has run Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, which relocated to Crawford Lane in 2004.

In 2010, Chay Seng fell out with his older brother's son, Arthur, over an advertisement that the latter ran in a Chinese newspaper to promote his minced pork noodle stall, Lau Dai Hua, in VivoCity.

The advertisement said the stall "Dai Hua", "formerly from... Hill Street" had "moved to VivoCity".

One brother claimed it was misleading and sought legal advice.

Lau Dai Hua currently operates a branch at Food Opera in the basement of ION Orchard.

Note: A relative of theirs runs High Street Tai Wah Pork Noodle in Hong Lim Food Centre, Chinatown.

Tim: The Crawford Lane bak chor mee was vinegary and rich, with tender minced pork bits and wontons - a pleasant surprise. But not so pleasant was the hefty price of $5.

Who charges $5 for bak chor mee, I wondered. Then I tried the counterpart at ION Orchard.

One bowl of bak chor mee, $5.50. Well, it is Orchard Road. What's the extra 50 cents for? Air-con?

The portions were slightly smaller than those at Crawford, but came with firm pork slices and bouncy meatballs.

Still, you get a certain ambience at a coffee shop that ION's Food Opera lacks.

Rei: I don't usually bother with broth, but Tai Hwa's was so thick, you could see the cloudy strings of pork swirling around as you stirred it. How could I resist?

And the noodles were really good. Fresh liver, heady black vinegar, mee pok that didn't have the weird yellow noodle aftertaste.

But all things considered, the dish was a little overrated. Call me a heretic, but I don't enjoy the national pastime of queueing. No bak chor mee is worth waiting half an hour for.

As for the ION stall, I wasn't expecting much. The best hawker food is found in hawker centres.

But Lau Dai Hua's dish was quite decent. The black vinegar is an optional addition (which is good for those who are not fans), and the chilli oil was spicier.

The ingredients were quite fresh and the noodles were tasty, but the broth was nothing to write home about.

Not a bad option if you get a hankering while shopping, but the best bak chor mee in Singapore?

I think Tai Hwa deserves the title.

Verdict: Hill Street Tai Hwa scored with both writers, even if they complained about the queue. The kopitiam ambience won out.

Rochor Original Beancurd

Where: 2, Short Street
Opening hours: Noon-1.30am daily
Dishes tried: Hot tau huay/you tiao
Cost: $1.20/$1

Min Traditional Beancurd & Youtiao

Where: 4, Short Street
Opening hours: Open 24 hours daily, except from noon on Sunday to 6am on Monday
Dishes tried: Hot tau huay/you tiao
Cost: $1.30/$1

The Rochor beancurd war was triggered by bitter business rivalry between four siblings. The business began in the 1960s when their parents peddled tau huay from a pushcart in Beach Road and Rochor.

Later, the stall took up shop units in Selegie Road and Middle Road before settling down in Short Street in 1998. Then, a dispute between the siblings led them to set up their own stalls.

In 2004, the eldest son, Koh Koon Meng, started Rochor Beancurd House in Geylang Road. He later opened another branch in Balestier Road.

The second son, William, set up Rochor Original Beancurd in Short Street, with a branch in Sims Avenue.

Caroline, the third of the four siblings, operates Min's in the unit beside William's in Short Street.

Finally, David, the youngest son, opened Beancurd City in Jalan Besar, which was followed by a branch in Sembawang.

We decided to take the shops closest to each other for a makan test ride.

Tim: The contrast between the stalls during our visit was stark. A steady stream of customers poured in and out of Rochor Original Beancurd, while at Min's, a rather bored-looking stall helper sat leaning against the wall while using her phone.

This was also my first time eating Rochor Original's dish, even though I regularly visit the area on Sunday mornings. Only Min's is open in the morning.

While having a nice hot bowl of tau huay for breakfast at Rochor Original is out of the question, it's no great loss. The tau huay from the two stalls tasted almost the same.

The two versions were smooth, delicious, not too sweet and looked almost identical.

But Rochor Original's you tiao was a bit dry and tough. It also had an oily taste that did not disappear after being dipped in the tau huay.

Min's you tiao was slightly smaller, but softer and less oily. Still, Rochor Original sells its tau huay 10 cents cheaper than its neighbour does. Your choice will probably depend on whichever stall is situated closer to your side of the street.

Rei: I'm not a big fan of tau huay. I usually can't eat more than half a bowl before getting bored.

That said, Rochor Original's was pretty good. It was smoother than most I've tried, and the syrup was not cloyingly sweet.

The you tiao was more ordinary.

It wouldn't be a bad choice as a quick snack, but I wouldn't bother if the queue was long.

As for Min's, I've eaten there a few times late at night - there aren't many options in the area if you want a bite at 3am.

Having tried both tau huay stalls, I admit that I can't make out any difference in taste.

Min's syrup is orange in colour while Rochor Original's is yellow. Though I prefer the you tiao from Min's, the difference is not significant.

I would go for whichever had the shorter queue.

Verdict: A tie. Just go for whichever is more convenient.

Original Chiew Kee Noodle House

Where: 32, Upper Cross Street
Opening hours: 8am-7pm daily, closed every other Wednesday
Dishes tried: Soya sauce chicken rice/soya sauce chicken noodles
Cost: $3.50/$3.50

Chew Kee Eating House

Where: 8, Upper Cross Street
Opening hours: 8am-6.30pm daily, closed every other Friday
Dishes tried: Soya sauce chicken rice/soya sauce chicken noodles
Cost: $3.50/$3.50

Another famous pair of sibling stalls is that of Chew Kee and Chiew Kee, both of which specialise in soya sauce chicken.

According to local legend, both originated from the soya sauce chicken stall that was located in Upper Cross Street in the 1950s.

But after an argument in the family, the elder sister and younger brother decided to part ways. The former remained at No. 32 while the latter opened a shop just a short walk down at No. 8.

The two stalls operate at almost the same times and charge the same prices, so the real differentiating factor is the food. We decided to test their signature dishes - soya sauce chicken rice and chicken noodles.

Tim (chicken rice): At Chiew Kee, the chicken was tender and the skin was smooth. The soya sauce gravy was good - not too salty, but tasty enough to pair with the white rice.

This stall added spring onions to the rice instead of the usual coriander, which I prefer. But I still think that soya sauce chicken goes best with noodles. The soup was rather bland and thin as well.

At Chew Kee, the soup tasted richer. I found the chicken a little drier and tougher, but the portions were slightly larger. The most noticeable difference was in the rice.

Chew Kee's rice was far more moist than Chiew Kee's, but to the point of almost being like mui fan (stewed rice), which confused my taste buds. Good for people who don't want to chew their rice, but not so good for me.

Rei (chicken noodles): Chiew Kee's soya sauce chicken was as tender as it gets.

The noodles were perfectly al dente, and the sauce was top-notch as well.

Okay, the presentation left much to be desired, but the stall was bustling even before lunchtime, so that can be forgiven.

The noodles and sauce at Chew Kee are indistinguishable from those at Chiew Kee.

What stands out at Chew Kee is the attention to presentation. The soup was a little tastier, but I didn't finish either bowl.

Chew Kee was also less crowded, and the staff seemed more relaxed and friendly. But when it comes to food, taste takes priority over presentation or atmosphere. Chew Kee's chicken meat was slightly tougher, so that tipped the scale in Chiew Kee's favour.

Verdict: With identical prices and similar portions, it was a close fight, but Chiew Kee won this round.


This article by The New Paper was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.

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