Hawker makeovers: Upgrade or downgrade?

Are the spiffed up air-conditioned versions of gritty Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint and Punggol Nasi Lemak as good as the originals?

1. Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint
1. Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint
06 Apr 2015

1. Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint

#02-609 Suntec City Mall Tower 3, S038983. Tel: 6594-2202.
Open daily 10am-10pm. Last orders 9pm. www.kayleeroastmeatjoint.com

Six months after a $4mil buyout by an electronics conglomerate, the famous Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint in an Upper Paya Lebar kopitiam has spawned a branch — in swanky Suntec City. Two more outlets (in Ubi and West Coast) open next month, and there are plans to open “all over the island,” says its new owner, Aztech Group. Now, all meats are prepped and roasted at a Sembawang central kitchen before being transported daily to all the stalls.

The owners: So how did an electronics company end up in the F&B biz? Aztech’s big boss not only used to frequent this 45-year-old roast meat shop, he owned four restaurants in the past. Although the original owners, Betty Kong, 68, and her husband Ha Wai Kay, 64, no longer have a share in Kay Lee, they’re doing a six-month contractual handover and will continue to help with the cooking and staff training at the flagship Upper Paya Lebar store for a few months beyond that.

The look: Clean and glossy, with plenty of pale wood, this Suntec branch seems a more sterile and casual version of Peach Garden. We were surprised to find it rather empty at 1pm on a Sunday. Perhaps because the 100-seater is located in a quieter, newly-renovated corridor in Suntec City, there are no snaking queues like the ones commonly found at its gritty flagship stall during its heyday.

1. Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint
1. Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint
06 Apr 2015

1. Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint

The food: Here, a plate of Char Siew, Pork Belly or Roast Duck with rice each costs $6.80, about a dollar more than the kopitiam stall. The meats are marinated with a blend of 11 herbs and spices, then roasted using a method originating from Zhu Jiang in Guangzhou passed down from Mr Ha’s father. Maybe it's because the chefs at Suntec have only been trained for about two weeks to a month, but it seems talk of slipping standards — which have also been directed at the Upper Paya Lebar stall — are valid.

Post-buyout, meats are cooked in the central kitchen’s gas oven instead of a charcoal-fuelled one in the past “because it’s cleaner”. And that’s why the smoky, charred quality that made the old Kay Lee char siew so special is missing now. The signature Char Siew is sweet, only faintly smoky, and just too lean and dry. Next time, we’ll ask for a fattier cut, along with more gravy on our rice. The Pork Belly is decent, though we wish it had crispier crackling. The best thing here is the Roast Duck, succulent meat enveloped in fragrant skin. 

1. Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint
1. Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint
06 Apr 2015

1. Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint

Besides the standard roast meats, there are all-new noodle and porridge dishes. The Shrimp Wanton Mee ($8.80) is worth a go — four crunchy golf ball-sized wantons accompanied by skinny, springy noodles.

Verdict: This Suntec outlet is definitely more accessible and comfortable than its kopitiam sibling. Sadly, the food is forgettable.
 

2. Ponggol Nasi Lemak
2. Ponggol Nasi Lemak
06 Apr 2015

2. Ponggol Nasi Lemak

#01-01, 371 Jln Besar, S208998. Tel: 6293-0020.
Open daily except Thurs noon-11pm. Last orders 10.30pm. www.ponggolnasilemak.com.sg

As we walk into the brightly-lit, air-conditioned shophouse unit near hipster cafes like Chye Seng Huat Hardware, we are greeted by the chatter of the young lunchtime crowd, images of fried chicken on the walls, and a soft drink dispensing machine by the cashier. But this ain’t no fast food outfit. We’re at the three-month-old branch of Ponggol Nasi Lemak. Think of this as nasi lemak for millennials. The famous 35-year-old family-owned business spent “a few hundred thousand dollars” on this outlet. Items like the fried egg, grilled otah and fried chicken are now cooked using automated machines that can control timing, temperature and pressure settings to ensure consistency. Thankfully, the coconut rice and sambal are still cooked by hand, following recipes that have remained unchanged since the 1970s.

The owners: Edmund Ang, 38, is the grandson of the 82-year-old original chef-owner, Koh Ah Tan, affectionately known as Ah Ma among the staff here. He’s spent 12 years cooking at the Kovan flagship coffeeshop stall branch, and is the sole third-generation hawker of the business which also has another branch in Tanjong Katong. All outlets are run by family members, like Edmund’s aunts and uncles. It might assume that the young and passionate heir to the brand would upgrade the other outlets too. However, he plans to keep them as they are to retain their old school charm. “If it’s not broke, why fix it? The reason we opened this third outlet is because we wanted to keep the brand name alive for as long as we can. Customer needs are changing. They want consistency, they want air-con, they want the place to be clean,” he explains. When asked to compare her version of nasi lemak with her grandson's, Ah Ma grins and says in Hokkien: "His is better."

The look: The two-storey 74-seater was designed to look and feel like a fast food joint. Everything is self-service here and the queues are mercifully shorter than at its other two kopitiam stalls.
 

2. Ponggol Nasi Lemak
2. Ponggol Nasi Lemak
06 Apr 2015

2. Ponggol Nasi Lemak

The food: If you don’t wish to customise your order, there are also affordable lunch sets (from $4) and seven new house specialties exclusive to this outlet. Our firm and fragrant Nasi Lemak ($6.90) cooked using Thai Hom Mali grains, freshly-squeezed coconut milk and pandan leaves is topped with a juicy piece of fried chicken wing with its signature tasty, super crunchy batter, al dente long beans with hae bee, homemade otah, sunny side up egg boasting an oozing yolk and a dollop of umami sambal. Shiok — and this compliment extends even to the machine-fried stuff, thankfully.

2. Ponggol Nasi Lemak
2. Ponggol Nasi Lemak
06 Apr 2015

2. Ponggol Nasi Lemak

Some of the new offerings are worth the calories too. Like the wickedly addictively Fried Chicken Skin ($1.50) tossed in kecap manis and curry leaves. Another deep-fried item to sin on: the Crispy Battered Leather Jacket Fish Fillet ($3.80 for two), moist, flaky fish fried in three types of flour for ultra crispy skin.

2. Ponggol Nasi Lemak
2. Ponggol Nasi Lemak
06 Apr 2015

2. Ponggol Nasi Lemak

End off with some house-made ice cream and sorbet served in cute cardboard cups. Our favourites are the Milo Ice Cream and Raspberry Mango Sorbet ($1.90 a scoop).

Verdict: Prices for add-ons here are only about 10-20 cents more expensive than at the kopitiam stalls. Meanwhile, the nasi lemak remains super tasty, the setting is cleaner and cooler, and the queues shorter. What's not to like?
 

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