It may sound shallow, but the name of a hawker in Singapore can sometimes be an easy way to tell how good its food is.
If the place is known by or bears the name of a locale that’s nowhere near its actual location, that’s often a sign that you should just drop everything, get in line and order something. Once a hawker stall has made its name somewhere, after all, its faithful will want to follow, wherever it ends up.
The much-beloved Hill Street Char Kway Teow, for example, is currently parked in Singapore’s Bedok area, nowhere near Hill Street. And one of the best places in my parents’ neighborhood for ta meepok, a dish of spicy tagliatelle-like noodles tossed with fishballs and pork, is named Jalan Tua Kong even though, frankly, I have absolutely no idea where Jalan Tua Kong is.
So when I started hearing about the “Old National Library” wonton mee shop — now situated near Singapore’s financial district, far from the former central library — I knew it was a must.
First things first — I consider myself something of a wonton noodle connoisseur.
Sure, Hainanese chicken rice and laksa may be dishes that set many Singaporean hearts aflutter when they’re far from home. But wonton mee, Singapore style — with the noodles served dry and tossed in a sauce made with ingredients like black vinegar, chili sauce, pork lard and, sometimes, sesame oil and ketchup — that’s the stuff of my dreams when I’m back in New York.
At Nam Seng Noodle House — the actual name of the Old National Library wonton mee stall — a chatty bird-like lady named Madam Leong is the brains behind the kitchen.
She’s been dishing out the noodles for more than 50 years now — ever since she persuaded a cousin to teach her how to make it. Why? For very practical reasons, of course.
“Zhuo shengyi lor,” she says. To do business, that is.
The setting is spare — you order at a counter and eat at a sidewalk table.
But I had high expectations nonetheless — fans of the noodles supposedly include Singaporean ministers of parliament. (Including former prime minister Goh Chok Tong.)
In fact, Madam Leong owes her current prime location to an avid fan of her noodles — Chia Boon Pin, an executive at Far East Organization, a major property developer, who once told the Business Times in Singapore that he used to eat at her national library stall twice a week. When the national library hawker area was demolished, Chia hunted down Madam Leong and invited her to open in Far East Square, which his company developed.
At Singapore $4 (about U.S. $2.85) a plate, the noodles cost about 25% more than most wonton mees at hawker centers. Having tasted these, however, I’ll pay that price anytime.
The slivers of roast pork were fine — nothing to write home about. But the noodles, a key component, were perfectly al dente and the wontons — plump and juicy with a slightly silky skin — were something special.
Now, if you’re a fan of heavy wonton mee sauces — packed with sweetness or spiked with a lot of chili — this version may not sit well with you. Madam Leong’s sauce is far more subtle — and healthy, probably. But she does serve great chili sauce on the side if you’re looking for more punch.
The place serves other dishes — venison noodles and fried rice among them — but I’d be lying if I said I intend to try them the next time I’m back at Nam Seng.
As long as Madam Leong keeps making it, I’ll be eating her wonton mee.
Nam Seng Noodle House, 25 China Street, #01-01 Far East Square, Tel. No.: 6438.5669, http://www.namsengnoodles.com/namsengnoodlehouse-home