When I was 12, my mother came home from work and told me that her company was uprooting us from Podunk, Texas, to Singapore. What this means to adults with taste buds: Adventure awaits and dining options are no longer limited to terrible Tex-Mex and Dairy Queen. What this means to a hormonal preteen: My life was forever ruined because I’d have no friends and have to eat freaky things like fish eyes.
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It took me three weeks in Singapore to discover two things: 1) I would not be forced to eat fish eyes, and 2) the kids at school ordered something that sounded like “kway teow” for lunch. It looked delicious — long, fat noodles coated with dark sauce, equally coated bites of chicken or beef, bean sprouts and some wilted green leafy things. So I ordered it. And I ordered it again the next day. And the day after that. And suddenly, Singapore a was pretty damn awesome place.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I ate kway teow for lunch at least three times a week for six years. I existed on these greasy, rich noodles, prepared by stir-frying them in a giant, super-hot wok dedicated to that very purpose. The cook expertly poured light and dark soy sauce, chili and oil into the wok, imparting rich flavor but not oversaturating the delicate noodles. Kway teow was best ordered at the end of the lunch hour so everyone else’s char and grease would stick to my noodles. Since returning to America, I’ve tried hor fun in many Cantonese restaurants, but most were too saucy and lacking kway teow’s distinctive "wok hei" char. So when I found out Lion City Chinese Cafe in Plano had my childhood sustenance on its menu, I got over there as fast as I could.
Lion City’s char kueh tiao (the spelling varies) is more in line with the traditional dish than my school cafeteria’s cultural hodgepodge. The fat “rice cake strip” noodles that the dish is named after make the base, along with some fat round noodles for added texture. The protein is a mix of shrimp and razor clams, with a healthy amount of egg thrown in. A fishier flavor is present in the sauce, likely from shrimp paste. Bean sprouts and water spinach round out the dish (eat your vegetables, everyone!). While the seafood elements are a change from the dish I grew up with, one crucial characteristic remains the same: The sauce-coated noodles had that beautiful char flavor to them. They were perfection, and I will go back again and again.
Some tips for enjoying your Lion City experience: Someone takes your order at your table, but the rest is self-service. There’s a station where you can get utensils, water and takeout containers, along with a fridge containing soft drinks. Grab what you need and pay at the counter at the end (it's cash-only). A spicy version of kueh tiao is available if you prefer more heat. If you like spicy-sweet flavors, try any of the sambal veggies, particularly the eggplant. Have patience. There seemed to be two people doing everything in the restaurant, including cooking, so your order might take a while to appear. It’s undoubtedly worth the wait.