To say that the prospects of having a good meal at Sin Huat Eating House seemed dim when we first arrived would be quite an understatement.
For starters, it was hard find the place. Located in a desolate corner of Geylang, Singapore‘s big red-light district, this restaurant situated in an open-air coffeeshop was so dark that it blended right into the furtive blackness of its block. On top of that, every so often, its few fluorescent lights would flicker and go out for several seconds.
Then, there was the row of grimy, green fishtanks displayed front and center. And the sweaty cooks who would emerge now and then to reach into these fishtanks up to their arm-pits in order to scoop out shellfish whenever someone placed an order.
This was the place that Anthony Bourdain had included on his list of “13 Places To Eat Before You Die” for Men’s Health magazine?
In all my years of eating around Asia, however, I’ve come to learn that it’s usually the least appetizing-looking places that create the most memorable dishes. And in Singapore, some of the best places to eat are to be found in the seediest of neighborhoods. (In a travel story I did for the Washington Post this weekend, I list a number of mind-blowing places to check out in Singapore’s red-light districts. These would be places to eat. Food, that is.)
And Sin Huat, once you get past its stomach-churning trappings, definitely fits this bill.
Now, before we’d trekked to Sin Huat, we’d heard the stories of hours-long waits for tables and brusque waiters who tended to be a bit vague on pricing. (Sin Huat has no menu — if you even dare to ask to see one, as we did, you’ll just get a sharp glare.)
The former wasn’t a problem on the night we went, however. Perhaps it was because it was early on a weeknight for the red-light district– this would be about 7:30 p.m. Or, perhaps it was the fact that it was an impossibly hot and humid summer evening and Sin Huat, which barely had lighting, of course was not in possession of air-conditioning.
Whatever the reason, the place was so quiet that someone who worked there was actually able to take off his shirt, prop up his leg and watch TV during the dinner hour.
We were seated right next to the green fishtanks …
… which offered us a very close look at what we’d be eating.
Our waiter was brusque, as billed. When we asked what dishes he had, “seafood” (accompanied with impatient gesturing toward the fishtanks) was his very helpful answer.
How it works, we found out, is he asks you if you like X, Y, or Z and then places an order based on the number of people in your party. It’s helpful if you know exactly what you want so you can simply ask for those dishes. (In our case, we’d told him that the place’s famous crab noodles were the only “must” on our list.)
Do not even try to ask your waiter about prices — he will say he doesn’t know and simply wave you off.
The first dish that came out was a large platter of greens so fresh they were super-crunchy. Now, we had been planning to save ourselves for the seafood but these veggies were so deliciously wok-fried with a little oyster sauce and topped with slivers of crispy, fried garlic that the plate was empty within minutes.
Next, a platter of scallops appeared just drenched in a slightly sweet black bean sauce loaded with big chunks of garlic. These were among the best scallops I’ve had — and every drop of that sauce was scooped up and devoured.
Up next was another of Sin Huat’s signature dishes: large steamed snails, dubbed by some as “Chinese escargot.” You pry out the snails with toothpicks and dip them into a slightly sweet chili sauce that’s once again studded with garlic chunks.
This wasn’t my favorite dish — the simultaneously crunchy and squishy mouthfeel of the snails didn’t hold much appeal. There also was little flavor to the snails themselves; the best thing about the dish was its chili dipping sauce.
We were starting to get full at this point — these platters were not small and there were only three of us.
So, when this way-too-massive platter of giant prawns topped with minced, sauteed garlic and spring onions showed up, we were not too happy.
From the first bite, however, we were hooked. The prawns were perfectly cooked and so fresh they were crunchy. But, as with Sin Huat’s other seafood dishes, you’ve really got to love garlic to like this dish.
The prawns, too, disappeared.
By the time the crab noodles we had come for showed up, there was simply no more room.
We sampled some vermicelli and ate a few bites of crab — and it was truly out of this world. The garlicky gravy filled with the salty taste of crab roe was unforgettable and the Sri Lankan crab claws were just massive.
And I’ll tell you what, the dish tastes just as good the next day, too. (Thankfully, our waiter didn’t glare or bark when we asked to doggie-bag our largely-untouched noodles.)
As unforgettable as our meal had been so far, the last bit was the truly memorable part: Our bill, which was a whopping Singapore $298 (U.S. $210).
Now, we’d had a Singapore $50 bottle of wine so the food actually came up to $248 (U.S. $175), which was still startling, considering the spartan setting of the restaurant. (“Spartan” being a very generous descriptor here.)
The crab noodles alone came up to more than Singapore $110 (U.S. $80).
But did we regret it? Hardly.
With a clearer picture of portion sizes and what to order and what to avoid, it’s possible to have a meal that doesn’t burn too large a hole in your wallet.
And you know what? After a while, the green tanks kind of grow on you.
Sin Huat Eating House, 659-661 Geylang Lorong 35, Tel.: 6744.9755