dropped by on a random weeknight, and there was already a short queue ahead of us. The counter fits around six pax, but you can pull up extra stools and squeeze a little to make space for your friends. As La Pona has been around since the ’80s, everything has an aged patina. We could smell the aroma of fried chicken wafting from the eatery even before the escalator took us to the fourth floor.
Despite the limited seating, we find the people in the queue very chill. Because of the unusually cramped space, there was a cute sense of camaraderie as large and small groups sort themselves out. While waiting for more seats to free up, a big group allowed a couple to go ahead of them. Everyone urged one another to move the line along by joking: “Eh, you all eat faster ah!”
And such is the informal queue rule that if you are tapow -ing instead of dining in, you can skip the line and order straight at the counter (we observed that takeaway customers get their food fast, even before dine-in customers finish their meal). “But tapow not nice one, somehow it’s nicer when you eat it here,” a repeat customer advised us.
The interesting mix of diners at our supper included young creative types, tai-tais toting Hermès bags, local supper-hunters, and nightclub hostesses on a meal break. We huddled together agreeably to enjoy a darn good plate of nasi lemak. But vacate as soon as you are done, unless you want the death glare of 10 other hungry customers on you.
No-frills nasi lemak
The snack bar is manned by a young third-gen owner, who now runs it with his mother and grandmother. They declined to be interviewed by 8days.sg as they are very media-shy. Folks of few words, they efficiently served a never-ending stream of diners while we were there.
Tucked away at the back of the shop is an open kitchen, where Grandma fries big trays of fried chicken. A large rice cooker is continually refilled with coconut rice. There is no menu; if you are a first-timer, just eyeball the dishes laid out behind the counter and tell the owners what you want. A nasi lemak platter with all the side dishes costs $11.80
, which gets you a meaty mid-joint fried chicken wing, fried fish fillet, a slab of otah, luncheon meat, hotdog, dark soy sauce-drizzled fried egg and fried anchovies, which curiously don’t come with the usual pairing of peanuts. Canned drinks like Coke and chrysanthemum tea are available at a la carte prices.
It ain’t the cheapest nasi lemak we have tried, but it was one of the heartiest and tastiest, with a nostalgic old-school flavour that reminded us of lovingly home-cooked food. As the food here moves so fast, you are almost guaranteed fresh toppings. We watched as customers who ordered chicken wings got ’em dropped directly on their plates as they were eating, fresh from the kitchen fryer (the perks of counter dining). Our fried chicken was very crispy, though not the juiciest, but we enjoyed very much the lacey-edged fried egg, spicy soft otah and crunchy sweet-salty ikan bilis (the fried hotdog and luncheon meat were fairly standard).
The retro fish fillet was also a stand-out, fried to a delicately crispy finish but still boasting enough bite. We finished everything on our plate including the robust sambal and rice, fluffy grains subtly perfumed with coconut milk. Fabulous nasi lemak worth queueing for.
They sell burgers too
Since there wasn’t any menu displayed, we only discovered that the snack bar also served burgers after seeing a few regulars ordering it to go. Eagerly, we tapow -ed a Fish Burger and Chicken Burger ($4.50 each) , which were packed in simple kopitiam-style plastic bags. The fuss-free burgers are, again, wonderfully old-school and delish. Warm buns cradle a freshly fried fish fillet (the same one served with nasi lemak) or a fried chicken patty topped with a fried sunny side up egg, a slice of processed cheese and optional chilli sauce. During the Covid-19 pandemic, La Pona Snack Bar’s operating hours were affected by government restrictions. As there was no nightlife crowd, it had to operate during the day, though it has since returned to its longtime 10.30pm to 4am hours after the restrictions were lifted.
La Pona’s third-gen owner started an Instagram account for his family business in 2020, which he periodically updates. In the most recent post dated Jan 21 this year, he thanked customers for their “unwavering” support. He wrote: “Like many others, never has my tiny little shop La Pona been hit so hard and we had to pivot into operating in the day. But what we were rewarded with were a whole different group of customers, people who never had the chance to try because we used to open so late, the uncles and aunties working nearby, the office crowds etc. Perhaps we are not the best nasi lemak when you are not drunk [laughing emoji], but we will continue striving to be as good as we can.” La Pona Snack Bar is at #04-53 Orchard Plaza, 150 Orchard Rd, S238841. Tel: 8866-0453 (WhatsApp/SMS for takeaway preorders). Open daily except Sun, 10.30pm-4am (or till sold out). www.instagram.com/la.pona . Photos: