You will want to do your own research
I have lived in Singapore for one year now and I am still dipping my toes into the hawker culture. For those of you back home in Iowa, hawker centers are like open-air cafeterias surrounded by food stands selling a wide variety of Singaporean local foods. While dining in Singapore restaurants can cost a day’s wages ($15 for one draft of domestic beer), hawker stalls will serve you a full plate for pocket change, often ranging from $3 to $5, with the expensive ones going up to $8 or $10.
When we moved to Singapore, they were still under Covid lockdown and no more than two people could sit at a hawker table together. As a family of four, we were hesitant to split up in what could be described as a cafeteria at a prison for elderly inmates. The food looks like slop. The geriatric inmates get ornery if you accidentally try to sit at their table. It is custom to save your table by setting a pack of tissue at an empty table before you get in line for your food. Don’t pocket the tissue and claim the table. This will get you shanked.
That description is utmost harsh, but that was my first impression. Still, few hawker attendants speak fluent English. Some places don’t have a clear line. People just wander up to the stand, shout out something in Mandarin, and they get their food. We as a family with two antsy boys just stood there trying to figure out what dish on the menu was least likely to put our allergic son into anaphylactic shock.
My point is that to the uninitiated, hawker centers are intimidating. But there are reasons why Singapore’s hawker center’s have been recognized by UNESCO for their cultural significance:
• Despite the bland décor, the stalls are spic and span clean. The proprietors take great pride in their establishments. You won’t get food poisoning here.
• The food is yummy. I’ve received plates that look like they were scooped out of the Rochor Canal, but once everything was stirred together it was creamy goodness. I have yet to be disappointed.
• It is one of the few opportunities foreign visitors can truly experience local Singapore culture. Most of Singapore’s tourist attractions feel like your pot dealer’s house with the neon dragon posters and black lights. At the hawker center you get to rub elbows with the friendly locals who are more than happy to chat you up and offer advice. Everyone is equal here.
Now, I haven’t ventured too far from our home near Singapore’s east coast. So this list of hawker stalls are all located within walking distance of our place. You’re gonna wanna google some more to find more judicious hawker stall recommendations.
Before I get started, here are a few tips before you begin your hawker journey:
• Newbies are best off sticking to the places you find on tourist sites. These stands are used to serving foreigners and they will be able to help you through the confusing process of ordering.
• Stick to the stall’s specialty. Most stalls do one thing very well. Don’t get adventurous with something that sounds fun.
• Each hawker center has anywhere from 10 to 30 different stalls to choose from. If anything, go to the place with the longest queue. Locals know best.
Unfortunately, the hawker owners are aging, and the younger generation isn’t too keen to take up the tongs. Though some young chefs have decided to open some hip hawker venues worth checking out. Hopefully they are still open whenever you make your Singapore visit.
Without further ado, here are the hawker stalls in Singapore I have been to thus far:
Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle
Let’s start with the obvious. Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle was one of the two first food stalls in the world awarded a Michelin star. And it’s just down the road from my house.
I have been to this hawker stall four times. I haven’t tired of it yet. The hype is real. So long as you like pork.
The specialty dish here is called bok chor mee. The stall, originally opened on Hill Street – now located on Crawford Lane – has been in the same family for 90 years. The progenitor was the first to mix this Singaporean staple of egg noodles, minced pork, and chili paste with black vinegar, which gives the dish its distinct sour flavor.
You don’t just get a helping of minced pork in your dish, but sliced pork, pork meatballs, pork liver, and handmade pork dumplings. Vegetarians are SOL.
Eating the bok chor mee at Hill Street Tai Hwa Park Noodle always makes me feel better, light on my feet. No heaviness on the stomach. No emergency toilet breaks. You just feel walking on sunshine.
That is Michelin-worthy.
You can find it on Google Maps here.
Expect to wait in line 30 minutes. Have your tissue packet handy to claim a table as soon as a patron leaves.
Heap Seng Leong
Okay, I have never been to Heap Seng Leong. This is a small, crowded, hot and sweaty, breakfast joint just a few minutes from Hill Street noodles. I tried to go twice. The line was too long and I was too hungry and confused to wait.
So we went to a traditional Singaporean breakfast nook just around the corner that you won’t find on Google. You get your kaya toast – soft white bread char-toasted and steeped with kaya butter (perhaps described as coconut butter). You get two raw eggs and a pot of boiled water. Put the two eggs in the water and let sit for five minutes for nice soft-boiled eggs that you dowse with a salt and pepper mixture that comes in an unmarked shaker and a soy sauce mixture that comes in an unmarked bottle. The mystery is part of the fun.
And you get your kopi – Singaporean coffee. The caffeine-potent beans are glazed with sugar and butter (or lard) during the roasting process, which is done locally so beans are always fresh. Beans are ground on site at the kopitiam (coffee shop) and steeped in a long-necked pot inside a sock – which is really just a cloth bag. The kopi is thick at first, and it is watered down with hot water, more sugar, and condensed milk (never fresh). You get a sweet, caramely brew with a real wake-me-up kick. The breakfast set all together: $3.50.
Heap Seng Leong is popular among the TikTok influencer crowd because of the unique ambience and the show you get from the father and son team that run the place. The dad is in his 80s and wears his striped pajamas to work and has been running the kitchen for nearly 50 years. Instead of condensed milk in your kopi, he slices off a dollop of butter and dunks it in your drink.
I have yet to try it, but I want to. I have technically “been” there, so the title of this blog post is not a lie. In the meantime, make sure to try the Singapore holy trinity of breakfast (kopi, kaya toast, and soft-boiled eggs) before you leave the island, wherever you might find it.
88 Hong Kong Roast Meat Specialist
Charcoal-roasted meats – pork, duck, and chicken – are a staple delicacy in the Singapore hawker scene. If you are a Midwesterner like me, or hail from parts of the world where meat is the centerpiece for every meal, then you will gravitate to the roasted meats hawker stalls first.
The charcoal-roasted meat recipes emigrated from China, and like most Singaporean dishes, they are blended with Malaysian and Indonesian flavors (namely chili sauce). 88 Hong Kong Roast Meat Specialist is on the road to our kids’ soccer practice and we ride bikes by the chain’s flagship restaurant on Lavendar Street every Saturday morning. I noticed the long lines and had to do a Google search to find out what’s the deal. Meanwhile, while my wife was out and about for work one of her co-workers made them take a detour to 88 for lunch.
When we finally took the whole family there after soccer practice, none of us were disappointed. I am from Iowa and pork fat flows in my veins. I had to go for the sio bak and char shiew special. The sio bak at 88 is pork belly that has been roasted and then blow-dried for 24 hours for a nice crackly crust. Char siew is barbecue pork belly with a sweet honey-like glaze. Like most hawker stalls you get the choice of having your meat (and a few veggies thrown in for good health) served over noodles and rice. I go noodles every time.
My other go-to hawker stall for roasted meats is Incredible Roasted Meats, run by a husband and wife duo in the building next to Heap Seng Leong.
Get there early because both places get lines during lunch.
Lam’s Kitchen @ Race Course
I wanna talk about abelones for a second. I have a bit of a fascination for this shellfish due to the 1967 Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke. The movie is famous for the line, “What we got here is failure to communicate” and Newman’s imprisoned character Luke eating 50 eggs on a bet.
When Luke learns that his mother has died, he picks up a banjo and plucks out the folk religious parody, “Plastic Jesus.” It includes the lyrics, “Get yourself a sweet Madonna dressed in rhinestones sitting on a pedestal of abalone shells.” That imagery is stunning.
Years later, during my professional career as a journalist, I interviewed this guy who built his house on the coast simply so he could partake in his hobby of abalone diving. I was supposed to talk about his house. Instead we spent an hour talking about abalones.
That brings us to Lam’s Kitchen. Ah Lam opened the stall on Lavender Street in 1975. His salt-baked chicken and abalone soup struck a chord and today his company operated seven restaurants across Singapore. The original restaurant, which is the only one that offers abalone soup, is also on our route to soccer practice.
We ride our bikes by Lam’s Kitchen every weekend, and the aroma coming from the kitchen is tantalizing, and the seats are constantly packed. So we had to give it a try.
The abalone soup was stunning. Meaty chunks of tender chicken, scallops, and abalone. A steamy broth seeps like butter into your brain. Yummy. At $9 the soup is considered expensive, but still much cheaper than one can of Budweiser in Clark Quay.
Here is the Google Map link for Lam’s Kitchen @ Race Course.
NaNa Original Thai Food
I lived in Tokyo too long where they consider Taco Bell to be too spicy. My palate for chili and the spices of Singapore cuisine is like tossing a baby penguin into a den of lions. Still, Thai food is to die for, and authentic Thai is well worth the sacrifice of a few virginal taste buds.
So one day for lunch my wife and I walked over to Golden Mile Complex on Beach Road. When the Golden Mile Complex was unveiled in 1973, eight years after Singapore’s independence as a country, the 16-story multi-use facility was held as a shining beacon for Singapore’s future. A bit of an architectural marvel, Golden Mile is a “vertical city” where shops, offices, apartments, and dining are enclosed in one barebones structure, inspired by the British Brutalist movement and Japanese Metabolism (so says Wikipedia). Like both of these movements, Golden Mile’s glory years were short-lived. Thirty years after it was built, one lawmaker called it a “vertical slum.”
Today, Golden Mile is often referred to as Little Thailand, filled with Thai supermarkets, clubs, and restaurants. The restaurants are acclaimed for their authenticity. We had to give it a try. And with new owners taking over Golden Mile, and a complete renovation taking place in spring 2023, we wanted to get a taste before the party’s over.
Now this is an article about hawker food stalls. It can be a gray area as to what defines a hawker stall. The Thai restaurants at Golden Mile are just that – restaurants. Not hawker stalls. But Imma gonna include it anyway.
The options for Thai restaurants had us spoilt for choice. We wandered through the ground floor for a bit, and ended up in NaNa Original Thai Food, which had the most welcoming décor. We had to go for the pad thai. I chose a papaya salad because it appeared the least spicy. And my wife chose the seafood tom yum soup because she likes seafood, and soup.
The papaya salad had chilis. Spicy chilis. Tears were rolling down my cheeks before my fork could be returned to the table. The tom yum soup on the other hand, was divine. Creamy, comforting, with tender bites of seafood and veggies. A later Google search revealed that the tom yum soup at NaNa is considered the best in Singapore. Lesson – always trust my wife’s choices over mine.
Here is the Google Maps link for NaNa Original Thai Food (Golden Mile), which has other locations throughout Singapore.
Hoe Hokkien Mee
Here’s the thing about hawker food stalls – they’re opening hours are tenuous. A friend was visiting from overseas. She was a foodie, so I thought it best to take her to the Michelin-starred Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle. Except it was closed. So we wandered over to my neighborhood hawker center, North Bridge Road Market & Food Centre.
North Bridge Road Market doesn’t show up on any “best of” lists you find on Google. Located at the north end of the Kampong Glam neighborhood, this is one of the oldest areas of Singapore. Many of the residents are single men who arrived after World War II to help rebuild the city. They stayed here, and you will find them today hanging out at North Bridge Road Market at all hours of the day.
So at first glance, this hawker center seems like a place to avoid. However, I have come to love North Bridge Road Market and Food Centre, and the food found therein.
My friend and I got in the longest queue for a stall clear at the back of the hawker centre called Soon Huat Prawn Noodles. As we waited in line one of the seated customers leaned over to give a thumbs up and tell us this is the best food in the joint. And at just $2.5~4$ a plate, the noodles slathered with vinegary chili sauce and prawns, fish cakes, and pork was a freakin’ steal.
So when my wife and I went out for lunch one day, I tried to take her to Soon Huat Prawn Noodles. Except it was closed.
My wife was drawn to Hoe Hokkien Mee. When I say that hawker food looks like slop, I am referring to hokkien mee. Hokkien mee is noodles bathed in this gray, gloopy sauce made from prawns that has been simmered for hours. Then it’s all scooped together with egg, prawn, fish cake, pork, and a dollop of lard. Even at the ridiculously cheap price of $4, I could not envision gobbling down a whole plate.
Yet, I did. It was absolutely delicious and I would go back again. The lesson as always: trust my wife and don’t listen to myself.
Here is the Google Maps link for Hoe Hokkien Mee.