#8 Singapore: Prawn Me. No Really, Prawn Me.

I’m not one of those dorky guys who worships Quentin Tarantino, and I’ve never been a huge fan of the movie True Romance.  But for some strange reason, there’s a scene in that movie that has always stuck in my head.  Gary Oldman plays a mean ugly pimp who beats the living crap out of poor Christian Slater.  Afterward, the mean old pimp says, “Hm.  He must have thought it was white boy day. It ain’t white boy day, is it?”

Not that my life resembles True Romance at all (my lovely girlfriend doesn’t look like Patricia Arquette, and she’s not a recovering hooker), but when we went to a little place in Chinatown called Singapore Café, it clearly wasn’t white boy day.

And depending on your taste in food, that’s either a very good thing or a very bad thing.

I usually avoid NYC’s touristy Chinatown, but I was really hankering for some good Singaporean hawker food, and Singapore Café on Mott Street was the only place I could find.  I brought three friends, all of whom are at least as white as I am.  Two of us left very happy with our meals, and two were pretty much livid.  It was kind of an awkward night.

from a real menu in Singapore... "Lamb of Rack" is not served at Singapore Cafe, unfortunately

For those of you who don’t know much about Singapore, here’s the quick rundown.  Singapore has only been an independent nation since 1965, when it separated from Malaysia after both managed to get rid of their British colonists.  Much of the island feels like an Asian cultural crossroads; though more than 70% of the population traces its ancestry to somewhere in present-day China or Taiwan, you’ll also see plenty of Indians and Malays, as well as a generous sprinkling of Europeans, Arabs, and people of mixed ethnicity.  In terms of the food, this means that the phrase “Singaporean cuisine” is a little bit nebulous, since the food varies dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Appropriately, Singapore Café seems to have some mild identity issues.  If you pay no attention to the name on the front door, you could easily mistake Singapore Café for a prototypical Chinese restaurant in Chinatown—it’s a small, clean place, adorned with the type of decorations that can easily be purchased in bulk on the streets of Chinatown.  The menu is absolutely huge (rarely a good sign, in my opinion), with lots of Chinese greasy spoon standards such General Tso’s chicken and moo goo gai pan. I’m pretty sure that plenty of tourists stumble in, assuming that they’re in a standard Chinese restaurant, and the restaurant is perfectly happy to let them make that assumption.

Case in point:  when the server took our drink order, I (somewhat stupidly) asked what types of beers they had.  The response was interesting:  “Chinese beer, Tsingtao,” he said, with an air of finality, as if they only served Chinese beer.  Without really thinking, I ordered one.  Then I realized that I was in a Singaporean place, and that there were Tiger beer signs everywhere.  I happen to love Tiger, so I switched my order… but wondered why the hell the server didn’t even mention that they sold Tiger or anything else.  Were they just accustomed to serving Mott Street tourists who were unlikely to recognize any Asian beers besides Tsingtao?

Unfortunately, two of my companions decided to order nice, safe, Chinese meals at Singapore Café, and that, um, kinda wasn’t the smartest thing they’d ever done.  One ordered pepper beef ($11), and he received one of those typical, goopy, greasy plates of food that you can get in pretty much any mall food court or cheap Chinese takeout place.  He didn’t complain, but I don’t think that anybody was too impressed with his meal.  It wasn’t white boy day, at least not for that particular white boy.

His girlfriend fared even worse.  She asked the server (I had a feeling that he was a co-owner, but I thought it would be awkward to ask, especially considering where the night ultimately headed) for a recommendation, and she said that she didn’t like spicy food.  The server recommended a “let’s not scare the poor white tourist girl” plate of fried chicken and white rice, otherwise known as Golden Crispy Grilled Chicken BBQ Style ($10).  She hated it (“boring” and “too salty”), sent it back, and was pretty cranky about the whole thing… and I can’t really blame her.  It clearly wasn’t white girl day, either.

looks angry, doesn't it?

I fared much better.  When I ordered prawn mee, the owner/server nodded approvingly and said, “oh, very authentic.”  I spent a very strange week in Singapore once on a bizarre business trip, and developed a taste for prawn mee.  (After a few days, I also got used to the fact that our bizarrely rural, isolated hotel only served rice noodles for breakfast.)  Prawn mee is a type of noodle soup with prawns (duh) and (usually) pork and (if you’re lucky) a few vegetables or other meat bits, all stewed in an angry, fishy red broth.  For a mere $6.50, Singapore Café served a gorgeous bowl of the stuff.  Unlike my friends, I had no complaints at all, and will undoubtedly head back there for another bowl next time I’m in the neighborhood.

Friend #3 was also pretty happy.  She made a point of ordering something that sounded strange and potentially Singaporean—a seafood and bean curd casserole ($13), which resembled like a thick, version of egg drop soup , but was much more loaded with egg and tasty fishy stuff and an occasional bit of vegetable.

mmmmmm, goop!

(Hm, I made that sound kinda gross.  No really, it was great.  A little bit goopy for my taste, but still pretty tasty.)

Despite my friends’ lame Chinese meals,  I’m not going to crap on Singapore Café, mostly because the prawn mee I ate was phenomenal, and I have absolutely no reason to complain.  For the others, I guess that this is a cautionary tale of sorts… I think most of us would be leery about ordering American food in a Chinese restaurant, and very few of us would order Chinese food in an American diner.  Ordering Chinese food in a Singaporean place?  Clearly, that shouldn’t lead to any dinnertime tragedies, but if a restaurant chooses to stick a particular nationality on its awning, I’ll probably stick to whatever national cuisine seems to be the specialty.  If you look on yelp, there’s a pretty big range of reviews for this place, and now I understand why—your happiness depends entirely on what you order.

Prices here are really, really cheap, and I’ll certainly come back for a $6.50 bowl of angry red prawn mee bliss.  It seems like you’ll be very happy here if you order the right thing, but bitterly disappointed if you make a crappy choice.  But either way, at least you won’t waste too much money.

Singapore Cafe on Urbanspoon

Singapore Cafe
69 Mott Street, Manhattan
Subway: your choice of several Chinatown stations

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