Want to experience old-school Chinese food culture and hospitality in Singapore? Get it at a Zi Char place. Home-style food, a wide variety of dishes, wallet-friendly prices, and humble settings are the best phrases to describe Singaporean Zi Char eatery.
Unlike your typical fine dining restaurants where excellent customer service is given much emphasis, Zi Char eating house is not the place for frills and luxury. Aunties and uncles, as to how the locals call them, wait tables so diners should be used to their noise, fast-paced service, and no-joking-around-kind-of-vibe.
Most of the Zi Char places own the same menu with typical dishes like cereal prawns, sweet and sour pork, and beef hor fun. So what is the main thing that differentiates a Zi Char place from others? It is definitely what we call signature dishes. The best Zi Char eating houses are normally those that have a variety of the most sought-after food items on the island.
With our guide to the best Zi Char places in Singapore, you now can start hunting for the most delicious Chinese home-style viands.
- Great selection of signature dishes: KEK specializes in piping hot comfort food to warm your heart and please your taste buds. Its delightful signatures like Salted Egg Crabs, Moonlight Hor Fun, Mingzu Rolls, and Claypot Pork Liver are truly outstanding. Each dish oozing with wok hei goodness will leave you craving for more.
- Salted Egg Crab is easily the most popular dish served at this restaurant. Deep-fried crab placed in a gravy of salted egg yolk is something you can’t afford to miss. It is subtly tempered with curry leaves and chili padi to bring out that awesome, delicious flavor of sweet, fresh crab.
- Crispy Mingzhu Rolls: Assortment of appealing ingredients (prawns, salted egg yolk, mushroom, ham, and parsley) wrapped in dried beancurd skin and deep-fried to perfection – interesting play of flavours and crispy crunch make Mingzu rolls another bestseller.
- A comfortable air conditioning dining option adds more value to the overall experience. This eating place spreads across two blocks and you can either choose to enjoy your favorite zi-char delights in the spacious al-fresco area or in an air-conditioned section with limited seating.
MENU: Keng Eng Kee Seafood offers a well-executed a-la-carte menu of seafood, chicken, duck and pork dishes along with a range of claypot creations. Set mixed platters, soups, rice and noodle dishes are also available.
- Mingzhu Roll
- Moonlight Hor Fun
- Braised Liver in Claypot
- Salted Yolk Crab
- Chili Crab
- Cuttlefish Kangkong
- Fried Soon Hock In Black Soy
- Sambal Kang Kong
- Three Egg Chinese Spinach
ATMOSPHERE: This no-frills restaurant has a down-to-earth air of a zi-char stall. The service is quick and efficient even during the peak hours and the staff is very friendly.
NOTE: Reservations are a must on weekends and especially if you prefer to dine in the air-conditioned room.
- A traditional zi char place in a hipster enclave: Located at Keong Saik Road, a bustling spot for delicious food, Kok Sen is one of the last old-school eateries surviving among a number of modern ones. For those who love the contrast between modern and vintage, this zi char place is an enjoyable culinary destination.
- An outstanding Cantonese-style zi char menu: From classic items like Sweet and Sour Pork to unique creations like Salted Egg with Wolfberry Leaves, Kok Sen’s menu holds the most interest for those wishing to have the goodness of both the familiar and the new.
- Claypot Yong Tau Foo with unusual flavors and texture is one of the restaurant’s specialties. Homemade yong tau foo is simmered with eggplant and capsicums filled with squid and prawn paste to achieve that bold, wholesome flavor. Served in a unique braising sauce brimming with umami goodness, it is utterly lip-smacking when served bubbling hot.
- Hor Fun with the largest prawns ever is seriously worth every penny. With a brilliant wok hei, it is a clear winner on hands with its smokey aroma and spicy, starchy broth spiked with raw egg ribbons and traces of dried shrimp. People keep coming back for this amazingly delicious dish.
MENU: Kok Sen menu has all the trappings of classic zi-char food from delicious soups to a variety of seafood, chicken, and pork dishes. It also serves some rare to find, unusually flavored Chinese delights. Cold beer is available to wash down your hearty meals.
- Big Prawn Hor Fun
- Claypot Yong Tau Foo
- Big Prawn Bee Hoon Soup
- Stir-fried Fish Head with Bitter Gourd
- Sweet and Sour Pork
- Braised Pork Ribs with Bitter Gourd
- Golden Dragon Chicken
ATMOSPHERE: A simple zi-char stall with both indoor and outdoor seating, this place is always packed with people regardless of the day. A proof of delicious authentic food? It must be that. The staff is extremely helpful and the service is usually quick.
NOTE: No Air conditioning available
- Innovative dishes: Two Chefs is particularly known for re-inventing traditional Zi Char food to suit the modern-day taste of the locals. A few examples include the Butter Pork Ribs with Milk Powder and Drunken Cockles. First-timers won’t have a hard time choosing which to eat because there are lots of recommended dishes that can leave them with memorable experiences.
- Zi Char food was even made more affordable and served fast: Perfect for large groups of guests who are celebrating a special occasion or just simply catching up with each other over good food. Prices at this zi char place are slightly cheaper than its counterparts in the same class. Prepare anywhere between S$13 and S$18 per pax to enjoy a feast on multiple dishes with a group of friends.
- Allows you to place an order before you even secure a table: The dining area is spacious but the popularity of the restaurant overwhelms it during dinner. So to make sure guests will have a fulfilling dining experience, diners are enabled to order in advance while waiting in line. This also gives the chefs enough time to prepare the food as fresh and hot as they should come.
- Near-raw cockles to “warm the cockles of your heart”: If you go by the Two Chefs rule, you must jumpstart your appetite with Drunken Cold Cockles. It is served cold, loaded with garlic, and chives, and doused in a very spicy sauce, ready to warm up your stomach.
- Butter pork ribs with powdered milk: You won’t go wrong with this dish, especially if you’re a dairy person. Every chunk of pork ribs is deep-fried to perfection and then covered with condensed milk powder making it a total eye candy. The taste is richer than the other butter dishes around the country, and the succulent meats add value to the overall experience.
MENU: Two Chefs’ menu features a load of meaty mains and seafood. Diners can find good selections of fish, prawns, crab, pork, chicken, beef, beancurd, vegetables, soup, rice & noodles on its menu. Some dishes are not your typical Zi Char food as the chefs try hard to be creative.
- Butter Pork Ribs
- Drunken Cold Cockles
- Golden Mushroom Beancurd
- Pork Floss with Fried Buttered Prawns
- Fried Prawns served with Mayonnaise
- Herbal Chicken Soup
- Cereal Prawns
AMBIANCE: Two Chefs Eating Place has an undeniably welcoming atmosphere. There are also large tables to accommodate the large group of guests, particularly families who have made it their tradition to eat together during the weekend.
- A wide selection of Cantonese dishes: Lotus Root Soup, Cereal Prawns, Fried Beef Hor Fun, and Homemade Beancurd are just some of the delicious offers on its menu. The heavy usage of sauces and oil gives most of the dishes a rich taste.
- Signature Homemade Beancurd: Por Kee’s signature beancurd is particularly commendable for its balanced taste and texture; crispy on the outside, soft and silky on the inside. Served with mushrooms in a flavourful sauce infused with wok-hei, this beancurd is a dish to die for.
- Champagne Pork Ribs: This pork rib dish is available in both solo and group portions. Expect to be wowed by the faint Champagne after-taste. The bone-in cuts may sometimes come with fats, but the thick savory sauce could be too tempting for you not to try it anyway. For this reason, it is one of the best-selling signature dishes at Por Kee.
- There is a dining area with air conditioning: As Zi Char eateries tend to sport a humble and run-down abode, Por Kee’s air-conditioned dining area with around 8 large round tables is truly special. This in-room amenity is perfect for those who would like to find comfort from the hot weather that envelopes the island all year round.
MENU: At Por Kee Eating House, the menu is predominantly Cantonese. There is a wide variety of starters and mains for vegans and non-vegans. A good selection of wines is also available to clean up the savory after-taste.
- Homemade Beancurd
- Champagne Pork Ribs
- Singapore Chili Crab
- Crispy Butter Prawns
- Deep-fried Salted Chicken
- Thai Style Live Sea Bass
- Sweet and Sour Pork
- Fried Beef Hor Fun
AMBIANCE: Being a Zi Char restaurant, Por Kee tends to have a noisy crowd during lunch and dinner hours. The indoor dining area is very limited, while the tables outdoor could hardly accommodate a large group of diners. Walk-in guests should expect to wait for at least 10 minutes to get a table but the delectable food will totally make up for it.
NOTE: Reservation is highly recommended.
- Friendly eating house: It is no secret that Zi Char eateries run by aunties and uncles do have a reputation for being a place with no non-sense and straightforward customer service. At Sin Hoi Sai, the friendly atmosphere makes the difference, as the aunties themselves are approachable and cordial. You may even exchange food ideas with them or ask for any food requests.
- Get your hands dirty with live seafood in tanks: Have a pound of crabs, prawns, squids, or red snappers cook to order. The freshness of the seafood draws the crowd in because you’ll get what you want right here, right now. Try the best-selling chili crab and brace yourself for the explosion of hot and spicy flavor in your mouth, yet the succulent and sweet crab meat balances the tanginess of the chilies.
- Vegan-friendly starters and mains: Don’t be surprised when you see a couple of Indians coming by this eating house because the menu is vegan-friendly. While the chefs don’t necessarily make Indian dishes, they know how to cater to their vegan patrons. Mock meat dishes are available for your mains and you may specifically tell them to not put ingredients that you don’t want in your food. Some of the must-try vegetarian dishes include dried chili chicken, sambal Kang Kong, sambal chicken fried rice, and curry mutton.
- Eat by the roadside till the break of dawn: While most eateries do have alfresco dining, Sin Hoi Sai is one of the few that allows its guests to dine at the alleyway till 04:00. It doesn’t help that the location itself is a busy road, along East Coast in Katong, so you get to watch many locals pass by or flock to the restaurant. More importantly, you’ll have the chance to observe the very simple and quaint side of Singapore.
MENU: The menu is expansive with a lot of vegan and non-vegan food selections. Mock meats are available upon request in order to cater to vegans. The regular menu is also customizable according to your specific diet, and the owners are open to feedback and suggestions. In fact, part of Sin Hoi Sai’s tradition is to include dishes popular by demand on their menu.
AMBIANCE: Tucked along the busy East Coast Road, Sin Hoi Sai is a tourist attraction on its own. It is why a boisterous, jam-packed crowd during its peak hours has been a normal scenario in this eating house. However, the spacious area, cool breeze, and friendly staff make up for these oddities. The laid-back ambiance feels like enjoying a hearty meal with your friends and relatives.
- San-lou Horfun
- Sambal Beef Fried Rice
- Sambal Kangkong
- Sweet and Sour Pork
- Marmite Pork Ribs
- Indonesian Chicken
NOTE: Reservation is highly recommended.