It’s a hot Thursday afternoon, and we are loitering in a GrabHitch car outside the new Eng’s Char Siew Wantan Mee shop. We are trying to remain low-profile, as we are dropping by to review the eatery, which had opened just across the road from its rival, the older Eng’s Wantan Noodle restaurant.
To deliver an objective review, 8 DAYS decided to visit both eateries incognito to taste their food and (secretly) film a video of our verdict, using our mobile phones like regular kaypoh diners.
“Agent 3 to Agent 5, are you at the shop?” whispers our videographer over the phone. Yes, we reply. “Are you talking to me so loudly right in front of the shop?” he hisses in alarm. We feel like a knock-off Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow, or at least, a part of the world’s first foodie sting operation. Said videographer had also insisted on sending a small group to each shop to look more inconspicuous when filming with their phones.
After all, this is not your regular food review. It’s kinda like trying to compare Coca-Cola and Pepsi; neither party will be pleased with the comparison, and we don’t want to be pelted with Eng’s pointy fried wontons, okay?
Meanwhile, our GrabHitch driver is peering wistfully at the shopfront. “Ah, Eng’s. I grew up eating Eng’s wonton noodles. Over 30 years already. Since their Dunman days,” he recalls.
But his face suddenly darkens when he spots the towkay of the newly-opened Eng’s shop, Desmond Ng, hovering at the entrance and glancing at the other Eng’s shop across the road. “That guy is the [original founder’s] son. A lot of customers complained about his attitude. I don’t like to go to the stall when he’s there,” he grumbles.
Disclaimer: prior to this story, we had not tried Eng’s noodles at any of their stalls before. Which is why when we stroll into the shop, we’re half-full on hearsay.
Singaporeans defend their favourite eateries as fiercely as, say, our national security. Which is why we weren’t surprised with the outpouring of disagreement when we released our video on Facebook lauding, er, the new Eng’s as our preferred choice based on our undercover taste test. A few commenters questioned if it was a paid advertisement (of course not), while some longtime fans heatedly declared that the older Eng’s was the best.
“I think this is absolute horse nonsense. The quality of food is incomparable, how can you even suggest that the new shop has better tasting stuff?” said irate netizen Leroy Vincent on our post, while Jiayuan Tay, another fan of the original Eng’s pointed out: “I would choose the quality of food over air-conditioning anytime.” Clearly, the stalwart that is the older Eng’s has its diehard fans.
You know a hawker brand is popular when it attracts vehement love/hate responses from people who have tried its food. But what is it about the two Eng’s that invoke such a passionate reaction from foodie Singaporeans?
The lowdown on the rivalry
The centre of the storm revolves around beloved local hawker stall Eng's Wantan Noodle, which the late hawker Ng Ba Eng started and built up at Dunman Food Centre in the '70s. Customers adored the stall's springy noodles, juicy wontons and his famously fiery chilli sauce that’s so feisty, some diners had to get their noodles replaced after foolishly dousing it in too much of the hot stuff.
Mr Ng later relocated his eatery to 287 Tanjong Katong Road with an investor's help in 2012, where he continued serving a steady stream of loyal customers until he passed away from a heart attack in 2013. His son, Desmond Ng, 48, took over the business after his death. Earlier this year, due to differing views in running the business, Desmond and his father's biz partner parted ways.
In the meantime, the lease for the original Eng's outlet was taken over by soup chain Lao Huo Tang Group, who re-opened the shop in April after a brief hiatus to renovate the space. Celeb fans like Edmund Chen, Jean Danker and her hubby Glenn Ong, and Ben Yeo were spotted at the joint.
“When Desmond Ng announced that he was winding up the business in early Feb 2018, the head chef of the previous Eng’s Noodles House approached us to help him to keep the late Mr Ng’s legacy [alive]. Lao Huo Tang Group subsequently managed to secure the lease for the same premises. [Eng’s] original kitchen crew, including the head chef, then joined Lao Huo Tang Group to continue the late Mr Ng’s legacy,” says Thomas Hong, CEO of the Lao Huo Tang Group, to us over e-mail.
On May 13 this year, Desmond set up his own restaurant, called Eng's Char Siew Wantan Mee at 248 Tanjong Katong Road, right across the road from the original Eng's eatery. His two sisters Jannie Ng, 50, and Yvonne Ng, 45, were roped in to help run the new space. “Some of the staff who were cooking [at the original shop] followed [the Lao Huo Tang folks], and some of them followed me,” Desmond tells us over the phone.
He also shares that he cooked alongside his dad at their Dunman hawker stall, and had previously trained his staff at the original shop to cook.
Scroll through our photo gallery above for our undercover review based on a dish-to-dish comparison.
The older shop: Eng’s Wantan Noodle, 287 Tanjong Katong Rd, S437036. Tel: 8688-2727. Open daily 11am-9pm. www.facebook.com/ENGswantonnoodle
The newer shop: Eng’s Char Siew Wantan Mee, 248/250 Tanjong Katong Rd, S437036. Tel: 8798-6088. Open daily 10.30am-8.30pm.
PHOTOS: KELVIN CHIA