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Best zi char restaurants in Singapore

Before the glittery arrival of celebrity chef restaurants, zi char restaurants (coffeeshop eateries) ruled local social calendars. We round up our favourites

New Ubin Seafood

Think of this as Singapore’s savviest zi char restaurant. Despite its rural Pulau Ubin beginnings in 1986, this wok shop’s kept up with the times. Unlikely bestsellers include the US Black Angus ribeye ($14/100g) and Carabinero prawn sashimi ($18/prawn). The smoky crisp shell on the mid-rare ribeye trumps most other specialist steakhouses in the CBD, and each serving comes with a side of glistening fried rice, wafting with a wok hei only a master could muster. Sri Lankan crabs ($42/500g, $58/800g) come with the option of 11 sauces that range from the recommended salted egg and chilli, to spicy masala and cream butter. The more traditional Chinese-style steamed fish ($6-$6.50/100g) are still reared and caught off the Ubin coast.

This is the quintessentially modern zi char that packs comfort food for the new generation – book well ahead.

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Por Kee Eating House

Before Tiong Bahru became a plush F&B haunt, Por Kee served as the neighbourhood spot for family meals and celebrations. 

Por Kee fills up quickly before the sun sets spectacularly over its low roof. Punters here shoot for the deep caramel-sauced champagne pork ribs ($20), sea cucumber with chunky egg tofu ($16) and cereal prawns
($22) with buttery oats. It isn’t until we’re almost done that our friendly auntie waitress tells us about the peeled prawn option, so that’s something to look forward to on the return trip. Por Kee also gets bonus points for serving achar ($3) in place of peanuts, to help reset the palate between dishes.

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Yong Kee

Jalan Besar hardly lacks good food options after dark, and Yong Kee is no exception. Much of the buzz around this corner coffeeshop centres on its crispy beehoon ($6-$18) – rice noodles flattened into a cake and seared brown on one side – which harks of the slightly charred noodles cooked up across the Causeway.

Other specialties served at the old-school kopitiam that fills its air with Channel 8 broadcasts include juicy battered prawns with salad cream ($25) served with fruit in a cored-out honeydew, claypot egg tofu ($10-$15), and mess of salt and Chinese herb-steamed chicken leg parts ($14) – a dish only your mother would order for its perceived health benefits.

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Little India

Two Chefs Eating Place

Two Chefs requires a trek deep into Commonwealth, but it’s a chance to dine in one of Singapore’s oldest housing estates. The food turned out by its two Ipoh-born owners, on the other hand, is decidedly more modern. The raved-about butter pork ribs ($8) lives up to its hype, with tender boneless cuts of meat showered with a milky, salty dust that’ll have you musing, ‘Milk powder, or magic?’

Their other invention, cold cockles ($7) marinated in vinegar, garlic, chilli padi and spring onions, doubles as a bar snack for your kopitiam lager, and the spinach with chicken, salted duck and century eggs ($8-$14) a decent and cheaper substitute of your Cantonese restaurant favourite.

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JB Ah Meng

Although this zi char place’s blown-up photographs of the Causeway won’t help you feel like you’re dining in Johor Bahru, its rustic alleyway seating might.

Tucked between two buildings in a Geylang lorong, JB Ah Meng serves dishes like a darker, more charred san lou meehoon ($7-$14) that’s a staple across the Straits. Deep fried fish skin ($12-$24) punctuates the meal with crunch and slices of Kurobuta boneless collar ($20-$40) eats like the luxe update on zi char-styled braised pork. Shoot also for the prawn balls and corn kernels draped in a salted egg sauce ($20-$40), which is an easier way to enjoy the hawker favourite without fiddling with the shells.

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