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Michelin Stars and Two-Hour Queues

Let me explain why Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle is worth the two-hour wait.

When I made the trip to Singapore last year, I did not have a solid itinerary. I wasn’t even intending to stay in the country long because I considered it as a mere gateway to more exciting adventures in neighboring Malaysia. All I had in mind was that I needed to savor the best of what Singapore had to offer in terms of its culinary traditions. Armed with a list from a friend who has gone before, my only goal for my brief encounter with the Lion City was to eat my way through its delicacies.

My friend Jack’s list was a very long one (I made my own edited version, with notes, deletions, and annotations. You can download it here) . It included typical Singaporean fare such as chicken rice, Milo dinosaurs, laksa, and others, but it also acquainted me to some other things that I needed to try in the city, like frog leg porridge and stuffed chili crabs.

I had my sights (and budget) set on some selections that I ticked off the Jack List. On the flight to Singapore, I was browsing Cebu Pacific’s in-flight magazine and read a story about how two of the city’s humble hawker stores were recently included in the famed Michelin Guide.

While I don’t really care much about la Guide Michelin,  I was intrigued that something as cheap as SG$2 could be included in the snooty and elitist Guide, which is basically the Bible for the elitist self-proclaimed foodies and gourmands of the world. The Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle hawker stand by Chef Chan Hong Men made it to the Guide in July 2016, and since then, business has taken off.

Where the magic happens

My good friend Carleen picked me up from the airport and brought me to my hostel near Bugis. I booked at a modern hostel near Little India because I wanted to situate myself closer to where the good food was. Carleen was still living in Singapore then, so she had a great sense of where to go and what to do in the city. She told me she has also heard of Liao Fan and have always wanted to tried it, only that the queue to even get to the stall was always so long.

She wasn’t kidding. When we made our way to Chinatown’s Smith Street Food Complex, the line to Liao Fan already snaked its way around the hawker center. You don’t even need to ask where Liao Fan’s is at in the labyrinthine food complex. Just follow where the line leads and you’ll find this little 2×2 meter storefront, with ducks, chickens and pork bellies hung for carving.

Ate Carleen (whose chocolate business I will be writing about soon), my partner in crime

I didn’t quite mind the long wait. Carleen and I had a strategy so that I could go through the Jack List faster. One of us could just stay in the queue and hold our spot, while the other goes out to order food and bring it back, or to take a quick toilet break, or to get refills for teh tarik or iced milky coffee. Most of the items in the list can readily be found in the shops and hawker stores around Liao Fan’s, so it was like hitting 20 birds with one stone. No, I didn’t really eat 20 dishes while waiting, but it sure felt like it. I had a grand time looking around what was available, and if it weren’t for the fact that I was saving some tummy space for a Michelin-starred chef, I would have already gorged on the best and cheapest Singaporean fare I could get my grubby paws on right there in the hawker complex.

Chef Chan’s milkshake, er, chicken brings all the boys to the yard

The line had that carnival-like quality to it. Everyone was antsy with anticipation, but nobody was impatient and crabby. I must have talked to 10 different nationalities and it sure seemed like news about Chef Chan’s soya sauce chicken offering have reached far and wide. After what seemed like forever and a few helpings of coffee, shrimp paste chicken wings, and other nibbles, we reached the hawker stall and were turned away because they ran out of chicken.

Just kidding.

That would be so tragic, I would ugly cry right there and then. We got to the front of the queue after  a little over two hours and I was just raring to go and figure out what the trouble was all about.

I must say the chicken really was damn good. The soya sauce marinade seeped all the way to the bones and you can just flake the chicken meat with a plastic spoon – it’s that tender and soft. The skin is slippery, but not greasy. The taste of the soya sauce pervades the dish. It had a very deep, syrupy and malty quality to it which suggests that Chef Chan uses a really dark and thick soy sauce for his chicken. He must churn out a ton of these a day while still being consistent about the taste and the texture, which is probably why he got the award to begin with.

The servings are a bit small, so you might want to order double

You can also have it with Cantonese-style noodles, with a bit of steamed greens and a sweet sambal-like sauce that is only a tad bit spicy but nutty and tangy

It’s this really balanced quality of the chicken dish that gives it such a stark simplicity. But I bet it is so deceptively simple, when it must involve a lot of time and effort to get it to that proper doneness. It is served with simple steamed rice and a helping of roasted peanuts. You finish the small-ish servings in a few spoonfuls, and instantly wish you’d had half the mind to have ordered more. It captivates you with that smoky, salty-sweet and umami flavor that really intrigues the palate. It’s humble, fuss-free and overall goddamn tasty.

The whole ordeal reminded me of the Coldplay song that goes:

And if you were to ask me
After all that we’ve been through
Still believe in magic?
Oh yes I do (of course I do)

I recently heard that Chef Chan opened up a new, jazzed up and air-conditioned brick-and-mortar for his famous chicken. There is still a long queue and people are still willing to line up for more than an hour just to even get a seat. Why the hype, though, you ask?

For me, it’s more than just the hype. Chef Chan’s is a shrine to all things that started humbly and small and are now world-renowned. It is a story of perseverance and one chef’s regard for quality and consistency. A prestigious organization that is respected all over the world saw the amount of hard work and dedication that went into perfecting this dish, and they rewarded that with a much-needed and well-deserved spot in the so-called Holy of Holies of everything that has to do with food and the dining lifestyle.

I asked Chef Chan for a photo and this was all he could muster. I mean the guy is busy as hell, after all

It is a Cinderella story that is relatable and achievable for all of us. More than his recipe of a great meal, Chef Chan’s story is that of grit and mettle. Lining up for two hours made me realize that any humble hole-in-the-wall can have the makings of a Michelin-starred establishment, and all you need is attention to detail, a kickass selection of well-executed dishes and of course, a tiny bit of good old luck.

Those chickens almost look sexy

So is it worth it? Damn shiok chicken and an inspiring experience? You bet your ass it is. Just ask the suckers who keep coming back for more.

What are your favorite hole-in-the-wall eateries and hawkers in Singapore? Any recommendations as to what I shouldn’t be missing out on? Let me know in the comments, you guys.

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