Singapore Chinese Cuisine (Maplewood, MN)

Honestly, we can’t figure out why this restaurant is still in business. It’s not the food, which is very good. It’s not the service, which is friendly and efficient. It’s not even the clean restaurant. The problem is that whenever we go, it’s deserted. It’s hard to believe many people in Maplewood appreciate what they’ve got, and that many people in Minneapolis are willing to brave the fifteen-mile drive up Highway 36 to visit.

Pity, really, because the food is worth the drive.

Singapore Chinese Cuisine doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s in a strip mall, looking like a perfectly standard below-average American-style Chinese restaurant. The large sign isn’t lit, looking like a perfectly standard below-average closed restaurant. And there’s hardly anyone sitting at the brightly lit tables. We wouldn’t blame you if you turned around and drove back to Nicollet Avenue.

Don’t. Walk in and sit down. Trust us.

There are two halves to the menu: a page of Chinese-food staples, and two pages of Malaysian and Singaporean dishes. Ignore the former, and order off the latter. Most of the dishes on the Malaysian side of the menu are good, so order whatever suits your fancy. Or use our recommendations as a guide.

Our favorite dish is the Captain’s Curry, a chicken curry so interestingly spiced it just comes alive in your mouth. It’s not spicy hot like Indian curries—Malaysian curries tend to be subtler and more interesting. The menu claims that it’s made with 27 different spices, which is why the taste is so hard to pin down. We think this is the best dish on the menu.

We also like any of the spicy assam dishes. Choose your protein; we like the seafood choices. “Assam” refers to the spicy and tangy tamarind sauce that flavors these dishes. Different are the assam lamek dishes, which start with the basic assam but are then seasoned with coconut cream and something citrusy. These can be made with chicken, tofu, or a variety of seafoods. They’re all good. And you won’t go wrong with the curry chicken, served with potatoes and onions in a curry sauce flavored with coconut milk and anise.

If you want to try yet another interesting sauce, one of these two dishes should suit. The hokkien bee hoon is mild and flavorful. This is stir-fried squid and prawns in a chicken-broth sauce, spiced very interestingly and served over rice vermicelli. The egg kway teow is a chicken and squid dish, served in a sauce reminiscent of egg drop soup with noodles. We liked it, but we like weird food; it’s not for everyone.

We’re less crazy about the Singapore chili prawns. It’s not a bad dish, just milder and more boring than it should have been. We had a much better rendition of this dish in Singapore. And the sambal mussels are only okay. The sambal sauce—a mixture of shrimp paste, chili, and shallots—didn’t match the dish well.

But the spicy grilled sea bass, served in the same sauce, is a must. This is a filet of Chilean sea bass, grilled over a banana leaf and served with vegetables. Absolute bliss.

Only okay are the dishes in the spicy peppery family: chicken, eggplant, vegetables, and various combinations thereof. The dish is served with stir-fried onions, green peppers, and carrots, which is a bit boring. It doesn’t have to be: we had the same dishes in Singapore, and they were intense and flavorful and delicious.

And while we’re on that subject, where’s the red pepper crab? This is probably the national dish of Singapore: crab coated in a thick, strong, red pepper sauce. We still lie awake thinking about the pepper-crab meals we’ve eaten in Singapore, and see no reason why they can’t be recreated on this side of the Pacific.

The appetizers are all pretty boring—except for the grilled pork chops—but ask for a dish of the spicy cold salad that comes with the appetizer sampler platter.

Service is uneven. On the one hand, there may be only one person waiting on the entire restaurant. On the other hand, there aren’t often many diners to wait on. Dishes come out of the kitchen a couple at a time. Presumably, they come out when they’re ready, although that doesn’t explain why some of them had already started to cool. If we could change one thing, it would be to ensure that the food comes out of the kitchen piping hot.

Actually, weekends aren’t as deserted as midweek. The restaurant does fill up, mostly with people driving in from other parts of the Twin Cities. These are regulars, and you can tell by the variety of things they’re eating that aren’t on the menu. It’s worth making friends with the co-owner/waitress Wai Lee; she can get you some more interesting dishes out of her husband Kin back in the kitchen. Maybe they’ll even make me a plate of red-pepper crab.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.