Look at that KILLER sheen. You can tell just from the glaze that this is excellent char siu, nothing like the dry papery kind that tries to pass off as meat. But even I was surprised by how good it was. The first bite I had was a fatty piece that simply melted into a pool of bliss on my tongue. The thickly chopped slices were sweetly succulent with a chewy caramelised crust.
This is Roast Paradise (#01-122 Old Airport Road Food Centre), and it is indeed char siu heaven.
Young hawkers Kai and Randall have brought KL-style char siu to Singapore, and I can't thank them enough for doing so. Have you noticed how KL-style anything just trumps all other versions? Like dark Hokkien mee, mamee goreng, and even wantan mee!
Anyway, these two wonderfully humble and affable chaps (Randall, left; Kai, right) gave up careers in nightlife event management and apprenticed at Kai's uncle's shop in Malaysia - Restoran Famous Seremban Favourites - which is known for its char siu.
But of course there was parental objection. Randall's parents were very angry at first, preferring their son to go for studies instead of becoming a hawker.
But these guys proved that they could succeed with a winning recipe (tweaked from their uncle's) along with determination and dedication. I saw queues forming at their stall even at 11:15am. They won their parents' approval eventually.
It's still a lot of hard work, 14 hours a day at the stall. But making food that people like is much more fulfilling. "Our customers are so much more appreciative than our previous clients used to be, especially when we go the extra step," says Kai.
Besides the stellar char siu, I fell in love with their Hakka noodles (S$3.50). It completely brought me back to memories of Malaysia and old school food. What was it? Oh praise the lard, what else could it be! Seriously, hawkers should never have given up on lard; its unhealthy rap is undeserved!
The noodles are lightly tossed in lard and garlic oil but aren't greasy. These noodles are also not like your regular mee pok - they are free of "kee" alkali or lye, and are less yellow, if you notice.
These noodles also contrast with the char siu because they are just lightly savoury, whereas the meat is much more intense. But mild as they were, I found them comfortingly pleasant.
You can choose to have these with roast pork as well, but the char siu is really the star. The roast pork probably has some ways to go before catching up with the char siu.
How do they get the pork so juicy and gorgeously caramelised? Kai tells me they use pork belly and pork jowl (the premium meat, extra $1 per 100g; not pictured here) plus a marinade that works hard overnight. In addition, the meat is laboriously roasted (and basted) for 3-4 hours in the oven. The normal dry, red-dyed char siu in most places only take 15-30 minutes to cook.
So yes, I have found char siu heaven, and it's amazing that it's done by two guys who have no previous F&B experience. Prices are very reasonable despite the high rental at Old Airport Road Food Centre and increasing pork prices. It's just S$3.50 for rice or noodles with one meat; the char siu / roast pork is S$4.50 per 100g each, or S$5.00 per 100g for double roasts.
Initially they started with more items like wantans and roast chicken but as it's only the two of them, they decided to streamline and concentrate on just char siu and roast pork. I think that's wise - focus on doing just a few things but do them well, rather than do many things only half as well.
The food business is very tough and increasingly competitive, but I think they have the right elements in place.
#01-122, Old Airport Road Food Centre
Open Tues-Sun: 11am to 4pm or till sold out.
Wed and Sun: 11am to 2pm
Closed on Mondays
Tel: 9786-7396 or 9189-1017
P.S. Yes, I have to get used to spelling "char siu" instead of "char siew" because Oxford Dictionary now recognises that but not the other. Yet.