Burgeoning food haven in the north

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Photo: ST

Well-known and new eateries offer mix of flavours in Sembawang

Samantha Boh
The Straits Times
January 2, 2015

Foodies flock to Katong for laksa or Jalan Kayu for roti prata, and some make the trek to Sembawang for white beehoon or bai mi fen.

New food businesses have opened in this housing estate in the far north to “feed off” the numbers of diners eager for a taste of the noodles, burnishing the area’s credentials as a dining destination.

It was not noon yet when The Straits Times (ST) visited on Monday afternoon, but a line of office workers had already formed outside You Huak Restaurant, housed in a former coffee shop in a row of two-storey shophouses.

They are queuing for Sembawang white beehoon, the thin noodles with thick white gravy that is served with seafood.

The ST waited for about 15 minutes before snagging a seat but the woman next in line shrugged and said this was “nothing”. The wait can be as long as 45 minutes at dinner time, she added.

jalan tampang-min

The 12-year-old eatery brings life to quiet Jalan Tampang, which is opposite Sembawang Shopping Centre and situated off the northern section of Sembawang Road.

The area, with street names like Jalan Malu-Malu, used to be a hang-out mainly for residents of the area’s landed properties or those from nearby neighbourhoods Yishun and Woodlands.

Only five public buses and one shuttle service go to Jalan Tampang, and even the closest MRT stations, Yishun and Sembawang, are 15-minute bus rides away.

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You Huak Restaurant owner Tay King Huak with his signature white beehoon, which attracts customers from the vicinity and far-flung places like Tampines and Jurong. Business is so good that he opens his second outlet in Punggol Point Road today. Photo: ST

These days, visitors come from even Tampines and Jurong, said the owner of You Huak Restaurant, Mr Tay King Huak, 68, who recalled one customer who got there at closing time.

“He said he travelled very far, all the way from Jurong, so we relented and cooked him a plate,” said Mr Tay, a former carpenter.

Business is so good that it opens its second outlet in Punggol Point Road today.

But You Huak, which started in 2002 as a stall in a coffee shop that once occupied its current premises, took some years before it perfected its signature dish.

“The first few years were tough because bai mi fen is a common Chinese dish and, to be honest, it does not look that appetising at first glance,” said Mr Tay.

But after several revisions to his secret recipe and good reviews by satisfied customers, its fame started to spread eight years ago.

While the bai mi fen is the main draw to Jalan Tampang, other eateries there have also made a name for themselves. Examples include Chye Lye Curry Fish Head Restaurant and Food Odyssey Enterprise, which started off as a turtle soup restaurant in 2004, but now serves zi char and even its own version of bai mi fen.

With the opening of mixed-use building Victory 8 in the area last August, several new restaurants have sprung up in the area.

One new eatery which opened in April last year was Sembawang Traditional Claypot Rice, run by Mr C.H. Don, 43, and his wife, both real estate agents.

With a slowdown in the real estate industry, the couple decided to venture into the food business, taking up where Mr Don’s grandfather left off in the 1980s.

Mr Don uses the same recipe as his grandfather, with slight variations. Business has been encouraging, he said, partly because of those visiting the more established restaurants. “Consumers will try different food, they won’t be eating the same food again and again,” he said.

The three-storey Victory 8 in Jalan Legundi, adjacent to Jalan Tampang, has eateries such as cafe Mootime and Umi Sushi, as well as shops like Chocolicious, which sells products by homebakers, and Nailz De Kawaii.

Newcomers do not fear but rather welcome the competition from the area’s “veterans”.

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Co-owners of Something Sweet Dessert Shop Maggie Khoo (left), 53, and Ong
Xuan Nong, 50, with a plate of their popular crispy durian pancake. Photo: ST

First-time entrepreneurs such as Ms Mary Leong, 32, co-owner of RoyceMary Cafe, and Ms Ong Xuan Nong, 50, co-owner of Something Sweet Dessert House, said their cafes actually complement the restaurants.

Ms Leong said her cafe, which she runs with her husband, gives diners a place to relax and chat after their meal, which they cannot do at the restaurants. “Over there, they will be rushed into giving up their seats to the next person in the queue,” she said.

Ms Leong said they got “on the right track” after a few months, and repeat customers are coming back for their heart-shaped macarons and green tea lava cake.

Similarly, Ms Ong said her dessert shop is at its liveliest at night after dinner, with most customers coming for its signature Crispy Pancake served with ice cream and fruit.

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Ms Mary Leong and Mr Royce Ho, the husband-and-wife team behind RoyceMary
Cafe, which is well-loved for its heart-shaped macarons and green tea lava cake. Photo: ST

Victory 8 has added 100 parking spaces in its underground carpark, which eases the parking problem in the area.

Residents like Mr Lin Zeyan, 25, an analyst, welcome the new eateries, saying: “They provide a mix of old and new.”

For the area’s “kingpin” You Huak, there is no fear that it would be overshadowed, said Mr Tay, as his restaurant also benefits from visitors coming to check out the new shops. “Their customers get to know about us, our customers get to know about them.


Additional reporting by Samantha Goh

This article was first published on January 2, 2015.
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