Hong Seng Restaurant 鸿勝菜馆
J told me while we were in Bangkok that there’s a good cze char place in Toa Payoh but was it lorong 4, 7 or? Clueless! Anyway, I got myself mentally and physically prepared to go in search of a crowded-looking kopitiam cze char, and if need be, cruise along every lorong starting from 1. By the way, lorong means “lane” in Malay.
I found a kaki (literally translating as leg in Malay but means partner and in this case “makan kaki” – eating partner) willing to scour the lorongs with me. We drove chronologically tackling lorong 1 first. Midway through lorong 4, my friend said, “I know a place nearby selling good cze char!”
I could not contain my doubt. He saw my skepticism and said “trust me”. You see, my friend is someone who will describe everything he pops into his mouth as “good” and if probed further as to what is so good about the dish, he would say, “it’s refreshing”. He cannot tell the difference between fermented beans like taucheo (brown) and tausi (black). And if dried shrimps were straightened out not curled, he’d be lost. I rolled my eyes and he insisted, “trust me this one time?” Try as I wanted to, somehow it didn’t quite kick in.
It was nearly 9.30pm when we arrived. I’d gone through the day without food and I was famished. I badly wanted tonight’s dinner to be as good as yesterday’s if not better. There seemed to be a good turnover of diners coming and going during my one hour there so I was hopeful. The auntie-waitress came, poised to jot down the orders. She thought we were one of the regulars who knew what we wanted. We asked for the menu and were given a minute to browse. She came again and this time we placed our orders. She helped us on our decision to order Har Cheong Kai and Pai Kuat Wong. We changed our mind later about the Crab Meat Tofu. The cook hadn’t started to cook this dish so we switched to Prawn Tofu for S$2 extra (see the delete line across the price on the receipt). While we were waiting for our food, I noticed a huge claypot on every table of 3 diners or more. We enquired and the kind lady (she looked fierce to me at first but is very obliging) informed it is one of their signature dishes “fish head in claypot” and that it was too much for us. She obviously doesn’t know my appetite but no point arguing with someone who has good intentions.
Heard it from the grapevine that when Hong Seng, one of the oldest cze char vendor in Toa Payoh, operates in the evening around 5pm, all the other stalls, including the drinks stall (a very unusual arrangement as drink stalls are the most lucrative – so you have to buy your drinks from them, too) must cease their business for the day. Hong Seng reserves exclusive use of the kopitiam during their operation hours.
Hong Seng has a loyal swarm of regulars since decades ago and the supporters grew even bigger after the cze char stall was featured in a newspaper article. Thus, eating at Hong Seng’s especially on weekends can be a nightmare. The modus operandi engaged by the boss and his 3 trusty chefs are to cook table by table. Once your order has been handled, it goes into the order queue in the kitchen. Each chef will cook everything on the order chit for that table before moving on to the next. And you had better order everything you want to eat because any addition of new dish means joining the single-queue ordering system again. So while getting seated is no problem, the order lead time is usually long, about an hour if you’re lucky. Although the waiting time is long, once they start serving, you know all your dishes are on the way and in such a pace you might not have the time to clear the food fast enough especially if the table is small and you’ve ordered many dishes. That can be a stressful dining experience. I’m really thankful we arrived after the dinner crowd. Food came really fast and as mentioned, almost all at once.
While the quantity was generous (for the price) and food was fresh, nothing is truly outstanding here. Somehow the food just lacked that bit of pizzaz or zing to carry through. I guess the critical thing that needed rectification is the (weak) wok hei. In the end, the best part of the meal was really the cost! I’m really happy to know that in Singapore where food cost is ever rising, there are food operators, like Hong Seng, who refused to charge exorbitantly.
Although the food was not spectacular, it was decent. I will go back to try their famous claypot fish head even if there’s only two of us!
P.S. When we called for the bill, some shouting was flying across on the floor:
The lady who took our orders: “Did they have drinks?”
Another older lady: “They had one cha and one warm water”
I grumbled, “Are they charging us for warm water?”
Turned out, she didn’t even charge me tea 😉
Thank you for the kind gesture, lady!
Hong Sheng Restaurant
(Inside Hai Fong Restaurant Kopitiam, opposite SPH)
Blk 203 #01-1121,
Toa Payoh North,
Tues – Sunday 5.00pm – 10.30pm
Closed on Mondays.
Some of the highly recommended dishes are: Chilli Crabs, Deep-fried Baby Squid, Beef Kailan, Hong Sheng Pork Rib King, Yam Ring, Sambal Kang Kong, Claypot Tofu, Crispy Noodle with Seafood, Sweet & Sour Pork, Bittergourd with Spare Rib in Black Bean Sauce, Beef Hor Fun and Deep-fried Frog Legs. On almost every table, you will see a claypot of (red-cooked, “红烧”) Fish Head. This is Hong Seng’s star specialty! Half a fish head in a claypot of yam, assorted vegetables and slices of roast pork. Opeh leaf for takeaways starting at S$5 is a “novelty”.
Happy eating 🙂