Lavender Corner - 195 Lavender Street
This food centre was my family's go-to place for a good Chinese fix in my picky-eating childhood days. While they would enjoy the typical bak chor or wanton noodles, I'd only sample the more unusual items; and that's the stuff that has brought me back all these years later instead of to any run-of-the mill neighbourhood joint. You simply can't find this stuff in other hawker centres, let alone literally next to each other under one roof.
Ju Hao La Mian Xiao Long Bao (#01-29)
I've always had a soft spot for Xiao Long Bao ($5.50 for a steamer of 8). This is a cousin of the fiddly sort almost exclusively found in mid-range Chinese restaurants, I'll explain how shortly. Each of these little soup-filled parcels delivers an unfailingly surprising gush of flavour when its chewy outer layer yields under your teeth, sending steaming, rich thickened pork stock spurting in all directions (hopefully within your mouth). That's my private Asian version of present-opening Christmas joy; and I can have it all year round with a lovely astringent ginger-black vinegar dip.
This perhaps plebeian sort differs from the over-refined restaurant XLBs in the way their thicker skins allow my chopsticks to find purchase and lift them to my lips without the constant threat of a premature explosion. The deft, limp chopstick grip mastered by my Chinese ancestors wasn't something I inherited, as any casualty of a dim sum lunch with me will attest to.
Bugis Street Ngak Seah Beef Kuay Teow (#01-28)
I will never understand why Beef Kuay Teow ($5) is so elusive in Singaporean hawker centres. Do people fail to appreciate the allure of springy, chewy tripe; that unparalleled mouthfeel of gorgeously gelatinous tendon chunks or even the magic of beef strips morphing from blood-red to rosy pink as they are flash-cooked for mere seconds in boiling broth? I can't even begin to describe that mysterious thick, black, umami-vinegary-peppery sauce napping the chewy noodles that I've tried for years - in futility - to deconstruct. I'm delightfully resigned to a pilgrimage here whenever a craving takes me.
As a sidekick to all that richness is a meatball soup that is as simple as it is exquisite. Two dense, springy meatballs float in clear beefy stock. Do dip generously in tangy, fiery chili.
Kin Turtle Soup Geylang Lorong 35 (#01-27)
Before you go all PETA on me with the whole save-the-cutesy-turtles spiel; imagine with me the meaty bite of mutton meeting the leanness of chicken and the lovely jelly glory of sea cucumber, all available in one package. I trust you've exchanged your arms for cutlery?
The $15 bowl I ordered differs from the $10 option in that it contains wonderful sea-cucumber-esque turtle blubber and only the tenderest, choicest cuts of the reptile. The latter goes best with a simple garnish of cilantro and ginger or - for the bold - fiery vinegar-based chili sauce. The mildly herbal broth gets its characteristic bittersweet flavour from wolfberries and a dozen mysterious herbs; don't ask what, just eat.