Tan's Story Bak Kut Teh "小陈故事" at Clarke Quay is a case in point.
I'm sure the owners thought they had hit the nail on the head by opening a late night bak kut teh shop amidst some of the hottest clubs in town. How could you lose? What could be better than a steaming bowl of bak kut teh (pork bone soup) at three in the morning after a hard night's drinking and partying to take a bit of the edge off before heading home?
But every time I passed Tan's Story, usually on a Monday or Thursday after one of my gigs at one of the club's in Clarke Quay, I see the usual empty tables and lollygagging staff, standing around, dying for something to do. Once, when I saw three tables occupied, I immediately looked up at the night sky to see if the moon had turned a shade of blue.
Now I'm a fairly new bak kut teh convert -- I had my first bowl about 5 years ago -- and I'm especially finicky when it comes to this dish. For me, what is most important is that the combination of spices and pepper must totally mask any gamey, porky smell and flavour. Remember we are dealing with meaty pork ribs boiled in its own stock -- the meat is pale, naked, and the broth is clear. There's not much to hide behind, and the success of this dish depends entirely on the perfect balance of the spices and the freshness of the meat.
Needless to say that I am not particularly adventurous when it comes to bak kut teh, having encountered a few reputedly 'good' stalls that failed my 'porkiness' test. Which is why I limit my pork rib soup adventures to the few tried and true purveyors of this dish, who will forever have my undying loyalty.
Given the poor patronage at Tan's Story, I've never been inclined to sit down and order myself a bowl.
It was only when the Divine Miss N came to one of my gigs at Clarke Quay and later suggested supper at Tan's Story Bak Kut Teh did I reluctantly agree to see what the lack of fuss was all about. We ordered the bak kut teh and a te kar, a pork leg dish braised in dark soya sauce and spices.
The steaming bowl of bak kut teh was first to arrive. I can usually tell within the first five seconds of the steam hitting my face, if a bak kut teh is going to meet my expectations.
No porky smell, I'm happy to report.
I'm not much of a clear soup fan, but Tan's Story bak kut teh soup is nicely peppery, with a measured hint of Chinese herbs. The herbs are not overpowering like some other bak kut tehs I've tried, and, along with a liberal dash of pepper, serve only to mask that dreaded porky flavour.
And they were generous with their cuts of pork rib on the bone; they even threw in some spare ribs for added texture. The meat had obviously been boiled for hours -- a good thing -- and was literally fall-off-the-bone tender. No picking up your ribs with your hands to gnaw the meat off the bone, enjoyable as that may be.
Speaking of fall-off-the-bone, the te kar was especially good. The generous hunk of pork leg would have been enough for two people and was stewed in dark soya sauce -- I've never been fond of the light brown soya sauce version -- and beautifully seasoned with cinnamon, cloves, garlic, pepper and star anise. Under the layer of fat, the meat was tender and surprisingly lean while the collagen-rich skin was simply melt-in-the-mouth.
They were kind enugh to serve us our generous hunk of te kar with a good piece of hollow bone filled with rich marrow. It's always fun to come up with new ways to get at that marrow -- tapping the bone against a spoon, sucking at the bone (usually futile if there is no opening at the other side), or my personal favourite, inserting a straw into the hollow and sucking out the marrow. Never mind if it makes the Coke taste slightly oily afterward.
For some reason, I also enjoyed the thick, black soya sauce to which I added small slices of chilli padi (extremely hot bird chillies) as a condiment and to provide that little extra fiery kick. I even called the waiter over to ask what type of black soya sauce they used. He shrugged his shoulders and said it was just an ordinary brand but stopped short of bringing the bottle, or industrial-sized container over for me to have a look.
Did I mention that there were no unpleasant porky flavours here? Tan's Story, you have earned yourself a new fan.
Madness rating: 4/5
Tan's Story Bak Kut Teh "小陈故事"
Block E, 01-08, Clarke Quay
Tel: (65) 6336 0939