By Laura Hubbard
Away from the tourist crowds on Pagoda Street, the Chinatown hawker center is busy serving up some of Singapore’s best food. But the soul of the place is in the people that frequent it. Go to see the old men playing checkers outside in Kreta Ayer Square, the friends catching up over kopi and the friendly caretaker with his necklace of padlocks.
The Chinatown Complex food center reopened on June 1 after a three-month refurbishment. The overhaul has taken nothing away from its charm, however, as many of the changes are mostly unseen, such as fresh paintwork, more fans and an upgrade to the sanitation system. Opened in 1983, the Chinatown Complex houses Singapore’s largest hawker center, as well as a wet market and a seemingly random assortment of shops, including a great record store.
Part of the fun of hawker meals is exploring to find your own favorites, but with hundreds of stalls to choose from, here are some top picks. I first visited the hawker to have drinks at Smith Street Taps (#02-062). This hipster enclave serves creative local and international craft beers on tap. Overlooking Smith Street, as its name would suggest, this corner of the hawker is a great spot to find a table with a breeze amongst an eclectic crowd. Alternatively try the locally made craft beer around the corner at On Tap (#02-75). They do a decent wheat beer and the prices are as low as Singapore goes.
I am hesitant to draw attention to Zhong Guo La Mian Xiao Long Bao (#02-135), but the queues suggest that the word is already out. My favorite meal in Singapore, the soup dumplings and spicy wontons are simply incredible. Customers can watch the dumplings being deftly hand folded, and I always get a gracious smile no matter how badly I butcher my order of xiao long bao.
Popiah are fresh spring rolls made with fried turnip, lettuce, egg and peanuts. Grab a couple from Ann Chin Popiah (#02-112) to add some freshness and crunch to your meal. If you are lucky, you will see the proprietor making the thin popiah wrappers, two at a time on hotplates.
The soy sauce chicken at Liao Fan Hawker Chan (#02-126) is purported to be the cheapest Michelin stared meal in the world. This stall is the original location of what is now a chain of restaurants in Singapore and overseas. Although some grumble about quality having slipped, daily queues from 10:30am suggest that Chef Chan’s chicken is still worth a try, even if just for the Instagram post.
The hawker is broken up into four sections, but in reality, it is a network of winding spaces. It’s best to have a wander to find the vibe you are looking for, whether it’s loud and lively or quiet and breezy. The hawker is packed at lunchtime, so a good option is to visit for dinner or on the weekends. Dumplings and a beer make for a fantastic lazy Sunday lunch.