The recent surge in imported branded restaurants and the lines they attract is exhausting. All that scheming to beat the queue and then eventually waiting in defeat anyway has been bad for our nerves. We’re of the opinion that only those aged below 25 (sadly, not us) should kill time waiting in line for food that may or may not taste good. Life’s too short for that. But here we are anyway at 11.30am on a Tuesday, perspiring like school children outside Tai Cheong Bakery’s first overseas dine-in cafe at Holland Village. Well, this story wasn’t going to write itself. Though 62-year-old Tai Cheong has a storied history in Hongkong, it is mostly popular for its takeout shops selling tarts, cakes and buns there. This week-old Singapore eatery is a collaboration with Food People Pte Ltd, a subsidiary of the local Palm Beach group.
THE QUEUE: There are two lines. A super long one for takeaways, and a shorter one for dining in. We gratefully join the shorter queue. There are only about eight people ahead of us, but we wait in the humidity for 30 minutes (the crowd almost triples later on). We heard a woman fainted while waiting on another occasion. And because the place is tiny — 26 seats indoors and 16 seats in the cramped alfresco area — we’re practically inches apart from diners at the outdoor area. Which means we’re treated to a bird’s eye view of an old chap taking one-millimetre sips of his tea after he is done eating. He even shoots the breeze with a waitress. Beside him, a nerdy young couple takes selfies with their untouched food. We pray to the gods for patience. At long last, we get a table. But, argh, it’s an alfresco one. We gaze at the air-conditioned section with its comfy-looking grey booth seats and retro tiled floor enviously. They should have made the place fully air-conditioned. We avoid eye contact with those still in the queue. It’s like dining on a crowded train of hungry people staring at you. Despite the hordes, the servers — especially a middle-aged auntie — are patient and kind. She tirelessly fetches us more napkins, water, and says “sorry for the wait” when serving our food.
THE SAVOURIES: We order the Scrambled Egg Toast Stack ($6.50; $8.50 with Spam fries). It’s a basic dish every self-respecting cha chaan teng in Hongkong does well. It arrives like a heap of wobbly, fluffy yellow clouds. The eggs are pleasantly moist and creamy, but not as velvety or rich as its HK cousins. The house-baked toast is soft enough and the dish decent for its price. We may order the pimped up version with Spam fries if we ever return. Our waitress recommends the Beef Brisket Curry Rice ($10.90). The gravy is full-bodied, coconutty, tangy, and spiked with peanut sauce. It’s like an odd but moreish cross between fish curry and gado-gado sauce. Too bad the beef is a bit too chewy. The Three Coloured Silky Eggs with Rice ($9.90) looks good but tastes dull. Sheet-thin omelette drapes a mound of rice. You can choose two meats to go with it. We pick the Roasted Pork and Crispy Pork Belly. Both are flabby and bland, so too the mushroom sauce drizzled on everything.
THE SWEETS: The Durian and Cheese Tart ($3.60) sounds bizarre, but it’s pretty delicious fresh out of the oven. Bittersweet D24 durian pulp with a just hint of cream cheese oozes through crisp, buttery pastry with each bite. It’s an offering that’s unique to the Singapore market. Unfortunately, the Hongkong Milk Tea ($2.50 hot; $2.80 cold) tastes more like too-tannic local koptiam teh than the HK stuff. However, Tai Cheong’s famous Egg Tart ($1.90) is as delicious here as those served at its takeaway store in Takashimaya. Speaking of egg tarts, each dine-in customer is now limited to a maximum of only two pieces. To, ahem, prevent you from hoarding and tapow-ing the leftovers (which everyone around us did on our visit, so we followed suit. Hey, when in Rome). Oh well, order more of that delish durian tart then?
VERDICT: *** The hit-or-miss savoury food here is somewhat comparable to the dishes at fellow HK import Honolulu Café, but most of its sweets — the egg tarts in particular — are superior. However, its rival makes a more authentic cup of naicha (milk tea). Still, Tai Cheong offers a filling, affordable meal if you don’t mind killing time to snag a seat. $
31 Lor Liput, S277742. Open daily 10am – 10pm; from 9am on weekends. Mains available 11am-2.30pm; 5.30pm-9.30pm only. www.facebook.com/taicheongeggtarts
(A version of this story first appeared in Issue 1363, Nov 28, 2016)