These stalwart eateries started out as streetside stalls in pre-independence Singapore, when food peddlers roamed the streets with their signature dishes. In the 1980s, many of them settled into government-run hawker centres or coffeeshops. These family-fun businesses continue to grow and develop with the younger generation at the helm today.
We track down five Bib Gourmand-recognised eateries that span generations and are steeped in history.
About: Rolina Traditional Hainanese Curry Puff, which is famed for its bite-sized curry puffs, started out as a street food stall along Thomson Road. Founder Tham Niap Tong learnt the curry puff recipe from a Hainanese sailor through a serendipitous encounter and started selling curry puffs on the streets in the 1950s. Up till the 1970s, Tham’s motor cart, which had a wok attached to it, was a familiar sight to worshippers at Novena Church in Thomson Road. The name of his business was accidentally christened by one of his customers who mispronounced "Novena" as "Rolina".
After a series of expansions and closures, only one outlet remains at Tanjong Pagar Food Centre, where it has been for the past 18 years. These days, Tham’s son, Bren, takes charge of the business, from making the rempah to crimping the dough to the frying of curry puffs. He says: “Our curry puffs have a long history and distinctive taste. I hope that the curry puffs can continue to bring back food memories that people have from the old days. I do not want this taste to be lost.”
What Our Inspectors Say: Chicken curry and sardine puffs are too good to be missed.
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2. Balestier Road Hoover Rojak
About: Baby boomers who frequented the now-defunct Hoover Cinema in Balestier Road would remember a popular rojak street stall, which attracted snaking queues before and after movie screenings. The stall, Balestier Road Hoover Rojak, was started in 1961 by the late Lim Ngak Chew, who peddled rojak around Toa Payoh before he received his hawker’s license a decade later. He spent around seven years selling rojak outside Hoover Cinema.
Lim’s popular rojak stall became so synonymous with the cinema that he retained the stall’s name even after it relocated to Whampoa Drive Food Centre (now called Whampoa Makan Place), where the stall is currently located. The stall, which is famous for serving rojak with century egg, jellyfish and ginger flower, is now run by his son, Stanley.
What Our Inspectors Say: The stall serves local-style salad with fresh ingredients and it can be served with preserved century egg.
3. Song Fa Bak Kut Teh
About: Turning 50 this year is Song Fa Bak Kut Teh, a home-grown restaurant chain that is best-known for its peppery pork rib soup. Its Bib Gourmand-lauded outlet at New Bridge Road has become a popular food haunt for tourists, with long queues forming at the shophouse restaurant every day. In 1969, Song Fa Bak Kut Teh started out as a pushcart stall in Johor Road by Yeo Eng Song, who sold pork rib soup and braised pig’s trotters. In 1975, it moved to a coffeeshop along Victoria Street, where it remained until the area was due for re-development.
Since Yeo’s children, Diana, Hart Pong and Zhi Yong, took over the business in October 2007, the stall has expanded to 10 outlets in Singapore. In the same year, Song Fa opened its first restaurant-style outlet in New Bridge Road. In 2014, the chain made its overseas debut in Jakarta. In May, the chain announced that it is teaming up with local food and beverage giant BreadTalk Group to expand to Taiwan. This move is a follow-up to a partnership with the BreadTalk Group to operate outlets in major cities in China such as Beijing and Shanghai. Today, Song Fa has 17 overseas outlets in Indonesia, China and Thailand.
What Our Inspectors Say: Much has changed since Yeo started selling bak kut teh from his pushcart in Johor Road back in the late 1960s. Nowadays it’s the second generation of the family who are running the show. They are still selling their celebrated pork ribs and peppery broth but are now doing so from five shops — and this one at New Bridge Road, the simplest, seems to be the best. Queue, order, pay, and then tuck into your soup. When you’ve finished, they’ll top it up for you.
RELATED: Behind the Bib: Song Fa Bak Kut Teh
4. Hoo Kee Bak Chang
About: For more than seven decades, the Chew family has been making Hokkien-style rice dumplings, which are parcels of rice fried with five-spice powder and dark soya sauce, and stuffed with ingredients such as salted egg yolk, mushrooms and chestnuts. For the past nine years, Hoo Kee Bak Chang has been run by its third-generation owner Ryk Chew, who gave up his day job as an engineer in the telecommunications industry to continue his family’s bak zhang business.
The shop is started by Ryk’s grandfather, Chew Hai Chwee, who peddled rice dumplings in the 1950s and 1960s along Amoy Street. His rice dumplings proved to be so popular that he took over the coffeeshop that was behind his makeshift stall. In 1984, Hoo Kee relocated to its current location in Amoy Street Food Centre following the government’s ban on street hawkers.
What Our Inspectors Say: Built in 1983, Amoy Street Food Centre has been renovated twice since. It’s only five to 10 minutes from the MRT station and being near the CBD means that there are queues everywhere at lunchtime. Hoo Kee Bak Chang sells glutinous rice mixed with marinated pork, salted duck egg yolk; pork and chestnut wrapped with bamboo leaf.
5. Ka Soh
About: Ka Soh, which is famed for its fish head noodles and zichar dishes such as prawn paste chicken and deep-fried pork ribs, was started in 1995 by the Tang family. However, the restaurant’s roots date back to the 1930s with Swee Kee Eating House, which was founded by the late Tang Kwong Swee. Starting out as a pushcart stall in 1939 in Great World Amusement Park, the stall relocated to Tofu Street (Far East Square complex today) in the 1950s and was named as Swee Kee Eating House.
At Swee Kee Eating House, a waitress, who was affectionately called “ka soh por”, was known for her fiery temper and no-nonsense attitude. Despite this, many regular customers remembered her fondly and she became an icon of sorts for the restaurant. These days, the restaurant chain is run by third-generation owner Cedric Tang. It also operates outlets in Indonesia and Malaysia. In April, it debuted a fast-casual concept, Faai Di By Ka Soh, in Jewel Changi Airport.
What Our Inspectors Say: The location is a little unusual but then there's nothing like being surrounded by hospital buildings to remind you of the importance of a good diet. Order the famous speciality here of milky white fish soup with noodles - made by cooking fresh snakehead fish and fish bones for over four hours - and you'll feel instantly invigorated. The fried shrimp paste chicken is also worth trying. Ka Soh also has branches in Malaysia and Indonesia.
RELATED: Behind The Bib: Ka Soh