Makansutra: What makes these Hong Lim stalls a hotspot
Before setting up your stall, keep in mind location, convenience and demographic
What makes one dish work at one place and not at another?
If I had a dollar every time I was asked that, I would fly you in my private jet to my castle in Europe to give you the answer.
But seriously, what works is still something many can't put their finger on.
This much I know, and I will use the example of three dishes found at Hong Lim Food Centre in Upper Cross Street. This place has a trickle of breakfast fans, is packed at lunchtime and then calms down for dinner.
These are three basic things you should bear in mind before setting up a stall (assuming you already have a decent recipe).
The first is location, then demographic (what kind of customers you will get) and finally, convenience (whether there is public transport, parking and ready footfall each day).
With these in mind, let's dissect some of my favourites at Hong Lim Food Centre.
CUPPAGE FRIED KWAY TEOW HOKKIEN MEE, 01-60
Noon to 7pm, Monday to Friday
Mr Cher Kay Hiong is from the second generation of that famous stall from the defunct Cuppage hawker centre in Orchard Road.
It relocated here in 1995, and he now runs it with his wife.
He said his is the only stall that sells fried Hokkien mee there.
I suspect two reasons - this is a big name to take on, and the cost of such dishes is rising (fresh squid is getting scarcer and pricier).
Foodies have only one choice.
The magical thing about their dish is the stock - the noodles absorb it well and this version is the moist but not soggy type.
The other is the sambal, not too sweet or salty, and just spicy enough once you blend it with the noodles.
DONG FANG HONG SOTONG BALL SEAFOOD SOUP, 01-47
10am to 3pm, Monday to Thursday
There is a queue every day. The owners said they now open only four days a week due to the lack of supply of fresh squid (which is what makes their homemade sotong balls peerless).
They add pork and fishballs to the soup, and you have it with rice or noodles. It is really all about the quality of the balls; the soup is almost bland.
Dip the sotong ball into the chilli soya sauce, eat it with rice and you feel the comforting pleasure of this dish.
This works for a few reasons. It is an old and iconic stall and the lunch crowd at this CBD area largely likes soupy stuff.
Easy to eat and not taxing on the tummy.
AH MENG (TAPIOCA CAKE AND ONDE ONDE), 02-45
From 8.30am until sold out, Tuesday to Sunday
The ageing owner steams a big pot of sweet potatoes right before your eyes, just to let you know he makes them fresh.
His onde onde is made with potato starch, which gives it a soft and bouncy texture. The gula melaka inside is the finishing touch you seek in onde onde.
I love his melt-in-the-mouth soft tapioca cake.
It is hardly sweet, very soft and lemak as he dusts it with copious amounts of grated coconut.
KF Seetoh, the founder of Makansutra, dabbles in street food businesses like Food Markets and has his own TV shows on cable. He publishes food guides and online content. He is also the creator of the World Street Food Congress. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram