“Queues,” my new friend tells me when I ask him for street food recommendations, “are impossible to avoid here.”
What do you expect when we are an island of foodies and everyone wants to eat the good stuff?”
Indeed I can vouch for the queues in Singapore, but also know these are no assurance of quality. So, which ones are?
This time, my fourth visit, I begin my search on Crawford Lane at Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, one of the city’s most talked-about stalls and one of two street food operations that were the first to be awarded with Michelin stars in last year’s listings.
It is a Friday lunchtime, it is steamingly hot outside and I have come hungry. This is a rookie error, for ahead of me a line snakes around in a semi-circle, each participant led here by the promise of a minced pork and noodle feast.
Forty minutes later I am still waiting, with around 30 people ahead of me. Next to the line, two tables of girls that their dish ‘was fine - but we wouldn’t queue again for it.’
Ditching the famous pork noodles, I dive two stalls down and order a bowl of beef soup with chilli sauce. It might not be the best around, but after the flight from London its offer of tender meat, nutty noodles and strikingly hot chilli are enough to jolt me out of my jet lag.
There is, it turns out, a way to queue smartly - at the table I find a keen young Malaysian couple tag-teaming, one standing in line, the other seeing off half a portion of pork and chive dumplings. Twenty minutes later, the girl returns with two piping bowls of pork noodles which the pair later deem “OK”. I take this as my cue to move on.
That evening, a significant queue outside the other Michelin-starred street food business, Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle in Chinatown, is off-putting though at 7.50pm, it looks more do-able. I stand for 20 minutes until a woman shouts ‘all finished! No more food!’ and we are invited to leave. Typical.
The next day, determined to find a queue with a guarantee, I go somewhere I noticed on a previous visit, and am richly rewarded.
At 1.15pm outside stall #01-1084, Yong Xiang Xing Dou Fu Yong Tau Foo there is, you guessed, a line 20 humans deep and all around a profusion of heads bent over bowls of hot broth.
A family business, this started over 40 years ago around the time that the food court opened in the early Seventies. A cluster of uncles, each wearing blue shorts and white t-shirts, dart around a small kitchen. One is busy frying pieces of something wobbly in hot oil, as another ladles the mixture into plastic bowls, and a third prepares bags for takeaway orders. Their teamwork is set up to produce endless numbers of one single thing - their version of a Hakka Chinese dish of stuffed tofu, called Yong tau foo.
Open for around four hours a day, the family spends each morning preparing for the daily onslaught of customers: there are piles of fish balls and a clear yellow bean soup to make; tofu with minced pork and fish paste to fry; and ngor hiang (like meat rolls) to wrap and deep fry in bean curd skin.
Thankfully, the queue is speedier here - no sooner has someone been served then someone else will finish slupring and vacate their table. Two minutes in, and another 10 people have lined up behind me. Six minutes later and I’m at the front, handing $4.50 to a lady up front and staring at bits of tofu sizzling inside a giant pit of liquid.
I take a seat nearby, next to a little family of two daughters and an ancient lady so tiny that she’s barely able to see over the table. They look up briefly to smile at me before continuing their lunch.
When my portion arrives, I am not expecting the level of joy that it brings.
The vegetable broth is near-perfect - seasoned with spring onions and pepper and tasting as if it will make my cheeks shine. The bits inside it are good, and especially when dipped into chilli sauce: the leathery-looking ngor hiang flaps open as I prod it, and eating it is a gorgeous combination of early chewiness surrendering to a silky middle. The soft tofu, with its custard-like form, disappears the moment it hits my tongue. It’s only the squeaky fish balls that sadly lack flavour.
Reflecting afterwards, I realise the magic of this simple dish is in its pleasing array of textures. Rather than the intense, fiery pleasure of a dish I'd eaten the night before, eating this is a more cleansing and peaceful experience.
Looking up I realise 30 people have been served in the previous 20 minutes, and wonder how many more they will pack into two final hours of service.
"Do you come here a lot?" I ask the man now eating some opposite me.
“Yes. This is one of the best places in the city because the tofu has so much flavour and they use hardly any MSG. The reason they sell to so many people is because it’s such a simple dish, and they make it over and over and again.”
Surely that's a queue worth staying in.
Yong Xiang Xing Dou Fu Yong Tau Foo is at Blk 32 New Market Road, stall #01-1084, People’s Park Cooked Food Centre, Singapore; opens around 1pm-4pm