The food industry can be subject to some very harsh whims. A coupe of months back I took my usual route down the escalator at Alabang Town Center heading to the Metro supermarket, and I noticed a big white canvas stuck on one of the doors of the restaurants in that lane.
It had the big bold words, “Closed by order of the Bureau of Internal Revenue” and the crest of the Republic of the Philippines. “Removing this seal is Illegal.”
Oohhh. Illegal. Big words.
The restaurant in question was Wee Nam Kee, one of the many Singaporean restaurants along this strip of the Town Center that I like to call “Singapore Lane” because of all the various Singaporean franchises dotting it — Toast Box (now defunct), Made in Candy, and Mr. Bean among others.
I didn’t really mind as I don’t like eating Chinese food in general, and Wee Nam Kee while originating from Singapore specializes in Hainanese Chicken Rice, so it must be Chinese. I don’t know why I hate Chinese food, but I definitely try to avoid eating this cuisine, which I hold to be the worst in the world. Or maybe it’s just because the Chinese food I’m most exposed to is North Park, which is yuck. Or maybe I was raped and pillaged by Chinese slavers in a past life. Who knows.
Well today Wee Nam Kee is back in business, which is fortunate. An unfortunate turn of events involving a craving for okonomiyaki (in no small part due to my visit to Little Tokyo last weekend), the renovation of Festival Mall and temporary closure of Fukuya, and my friend’s craving for salted egg pork ribs ended in my standing here before Wee Nam Kee’s doors today.
Despite my protests in hating Chinese food for its oiliness, its generally unclean aura and its “distinct betchin taste,” my friend assured me that this was a good restaurant she’d tried in Singapore and that the food was “Singaporean” and not “Chinese.” Seeing the words “Hainanese Chicken Rice” really did not ease my doubts.
But hey, You Live Only Once and I will try just about anything once.
So I took the time to check the menu. The house specialty was the Hainanese Chicken but when I took a peek at its pale pink meat and unassuming look, I just couldn’t help but think it was ridiculously unappetizing. I had also tried the other Hainanese Chicken restaurant you see in other malls and the chicken was terrible, so I thought I’d skip out on this one. Might as well give Wee Nam Kee a fair chance to fight for my favor instead of trying something I am almost sure I am going to hate.
So instead, I looked through the menu and settled on something that looked more… delicious. That would be this.
Wow. Wok-Fried Chicken with Cashew Nuts and Sun-Dried Chilli. Okay. The man who came up with the name for this dish, please step forward. I will give a medal. The ‘Medal of Ridiculous Unoriginality and Lazy-Just-List-Off-the-Ingredients-of-the-Dish’ness. Yes, I’m sure it’ll make mommy proud.
We also grabbed some Salted Pork Spare Ribs and some Barley Tea. Apparently this barley thing is a hit in Singapore. I remember my old friend Mark said that Singapore Lemon Barley Tea is the best. Well. I’ll try it.
Well, I got ahead of myself. Before any of those sumptuous dishes arrives, we first got the house soup. It’s just onion leeks in chicken broth. It tastes exactly like the kind you’d find at a carinderia anywhere.
In fact, Wee Name Kee was like a carinderia originally in Singapore. It’s only here that it became kinda saucy. I gotta hand it to the interior decor, at least the place looks saucy.
Unfortunately the dishes were a fail. Cheap plastic. So yeah, it still felt like cheap dining. Well, at least until I got the bill. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Well regardless, the dishes arrived. The salted egg pork looked… weird but the wok-fried chicken thing actually looked very nice.
Here’s what I have to say about Wee Nam Kee. It may be Hainanese in origin, but I am happy to report that the food was much better than I thought it would be. I didn’t taste that pesky Vetsin taste anywhere, like I do when eating at North Park or other cheap Chinese restaurants.
The salted egg pork was decent. Not great. The pork itself was fried and crisped, somewhat like crispy pata. However, it was a little too hard for my tastes. If the meat were more tender instead of being excessively tough and hard, it may have scored better points. I’m a huge stickler for texture. The sauce was very curious. It was really just salted egg. At first I thought it was mixed with mayo or some kind of cream, but as I tried it further it seems like it was just a combination of an almost hard-boiled salted egg which still was fairly liquid, and a hard boiled one. Whisked together it came up with this weird sauce that tasted all salty egg.
The preparation for this actually reminded me a lot of how katsudon sauce is made — it’s probably similar except it uses salted egg instead of normal eggs.
I like salted egg, but it was weird to experience it in this manner. Still, the taste wasn’t bad. But not exactly a masterful flavor. It’s way too strong, and as a proponent of strong flavors that may sound weird, but I like strong flavors that don’t taste basic — I like them to mix and match with ingredients to create a rich, distinct and unique taste. The taste of the salted egg — tasted too much like pure saltiness. There wasn’t much complexity to the flavor, which is why I am docking the dish overall.
The wok-fried chicken though was excellent. It’s oozing in oiliness, which is what I expect from a Chinese dish. However this didn’t have any underlying disgusting taste that I associate with oily Chinese foods. Instead, I could just taste the pure thickness of its oil, the soy sauce, I think some kind of oyster or worcestershire-type sauce was present as well, but the taste was a very thick, tangy, sweetish marinade. It crisped and burned a bit to give the chicken a good glace that was delicious to bite into, and the chicken was suitably succulent and soft otherwise. Surprisingly, the dish was not very spicy, so to get some spice you would have to eat the tons of sun-dried peppers that littered the bottom of the dish.
And yes, I did eat most of them. They were suitably spicy and hot! Luckily, we had a bottomless glass of barley juice. Whenever the heat was becoming too much for me, I just took a swig of the barley juice and the heat went away. For those of you who mistakenly eat a hot chili pepper and can’t take the heat, remember that dairy and wheat products are great at countering the capsaicin in pepper and giving you quick relief.
The barley juice turned out to be ridiculously good at countering capsaicin. It was a ridiculously thick-bodied beverage; so thick I’m more inclined to call it Cream of Barley than juice. It was actually pretty good, but the straw they serve it with can barely suck the barley from the bottom, and the barley was great to snack on for that extra fiber.
Its barley-infused liquid easily killed all the heat of the peppers in one gulp, so I’ll remember that for future reference.
The other thing to note about the barley juice is that it tastes ridiculously close to a local dessert called Tambo Tambung. Tambo tambung is a sweet rice dish where you roll sweet rice into balls, splash it in water, boil a little to thicken along with a bunch of other stuff like tapioca, mango bits, jack fruit bits and any other nice sweets you can think of adding. It’s great and this barley juice tastes like tambo tambung in juice form.
The barley acted like malagkit rice and the thickening of the juice was very, very similar to how tambo tambung‘s thickened soup tastes like, and eating the barley bits was like eating the rice balls. Now I miss eating my lola’s tambo tambung.
Before I forget, we also had the house specialty rice, Hainanese Chicken Rice. Now as far as I can tell, it’s simply plain white rice rissoto in the chicken stock, with a little soy sauce added. It wasn’t really anything great to talk about. It didn’t even have the chicken aroma that wafted from the soup. It was serviceable but not a great rice.
Overall, though, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the meal was. It wasn’t as good as Phoenix Court when it comes to making Chinese food taste great, but at least I didn’t shrink in revulsion like I usually do whenever the door to North Park opens while I am passing by.
The flavors were bold and strong, which is typical of Szechuan Chinese dishes, but the oiliness was controlled and didn’t have any hint of foul ingredients messing the taste. My only real complaint I suppose is that a carinderia in Singapore apparently charges as much as a high-class restaurant in Manila, because the bill for all the aforementioned came up to around 900 bucks.
Not surprising though considering Singapore has been surpassing Tokyo and Paris as the most-expensive city to live in for a few years now. But it’s good that I get to eat at places like this, they go a long way into changing my bigoted mind regarding Chinese cuisine.