Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The arrival of Din Tai Fung and Tim Ho Wan in Manila signaled the exponential growth of the Philippines’ restaurant scene. The restaurant chains, each well-received upon opening, carried with them the sheen of a Michelin star: a trusted mark of quality among dining establishments around the world.
One of the chains soon to arrive in Manila is Liao Fan Hawker Chan, a soya sauce chicken rice and noodle joint from Singapore. When its Chinatown hawker stall was awarded its first Michelin star in July 2016, it effectively booted Tim Ho Wan as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, with its S$2 (₱76.15) soya sauce chicken rice meal.
In Singapore, Hawker Chan is a well-loved local haunt, spawning another branch to cater to wide demand. The dine-in restaurant along Smith Street is an offshoot of the hawker stall (formerly Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle), but both are under the helm of chef Chan Hong Meng, called “Uncle Chan” by those who dote on him.
The Michelin nod — which came at a time when Singapore was starting to become known for luxury dining — made the country’s hawker heritage more visible, putting it at par with some high-end Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Peranakan restaurant Candlenut by Malcolm Lee.
Meng and Lee, incidentally, are both ambassadors of Singapore’s new tourism campaign, “Passion Made Possible,” launched in August in Singapore and mid-September in the Philippines. In a landscape filled with modern fusion cuisine, the two chefs stand out for offering contemporary and traditional Singaporean fare, putting the highlight on the country’s unique mix of Malaysian and Chinese influences.
The lines in Hawker Chan are supposed to be long, but we were lucky enough not have waited in queue. Lael Loh, a Singaporean now based in Manila (she heads the Makati branch of the Singapore Tourism Board), tells us that the restaurant’s hawker stall is even busier: guests wait for hours, sometimes, in the sweltering heat.
But in the second Hawker Chan, there is more space (and air-conditioning) to enjoy the meal that put it in the map: the soya sauce chicken rice. The meal costs S$3.80 (₱144.68); a marked-up price from hawker stall prices. Still, it’s a small price to pay — a steal, really — for a meal that arguably won Singapore its most distinctive Michelin star.
There are 20 other main dishes to choose from, ranging from the soya sauce chicken noodle (S$4.80/ ₱182.75 ), a combination platter of char siew, roasted pork, and pork rib (S$6.00/₱228.44 for two; S$10.00/₱380.74 for all three) to the whole chicken (S$25.00/₱951.85).
While the trademark chicken rice is good, it’s best to go for the noodles, which are thin, firm, and are surprisingly more filling than the rice. The noodles lovingly remind me of a joint in Hong Kong’s Wellington Street Central: Mak’s Noodle, a Cantonese restaurant specializing in wonton noodles.
The meals in Hawker Chan, however, are all Meng’s own. “He uses his own recipe,” says Meng’s translator, after I ask Meng how he makes the soya sauce and noodles so tasty. “It’s critically-acclaimed all throughout,” says Loh, alluding to the deluge of media press owing to Hawker Chan’s rise to fame.
The 52-year-old Meng has worked for years as a hawker before the Michelin guide launched in Singapore. After Meng received his award, he proceeded home in a train, as humble as he was before the fine dining guide knocked on his door. The next day in his hawker stall was business as usual. But the hawker stall’s popularity compelled him to open the second branch in Singapore, as well as expand all over the world, including the Philippines.
Accompanied by a translator, Meng approaches tables and smiles, as if to ask if the food was good. He gamely poses for multiple pictures. He answers a few questions, even as the restaurant begins to fill with people. He looks young, approachable, and oblivious to the attention he’s getting.
Meng himself is an inspiring figure, and it’s not just because of his chicken rice. He’s a living reminder of what good food is about: keeping true to your roots, and making a connection with the people you serve. He has famously refused to increase prices because he wants to treat his customers well.
There are 28 restaurants so far awarded the Michelin in Singapore. Two of them focus on street food; majority focus on foreign cuisine, notably French contemporary. It questions the award’s significance in keeping local cuisine alive.
But keeping the spotlight on places like Hawker Chan may be a step in the right direction, Michelin award or not. There are treasures lurking within the country’s 15,000-stall hawker heritage, waiting to be found, eager to show the world what the immense diversity of Singaporean cuisine tastes like.
For more information on Singapore’s new tourism campaign, check the official Singapore tourism website.
The specific date for Hawker Chan's arrival in Manila will be announced soon.