Just like Singapore, lah

By Chonx Tibajia (The Philippine Star) | Updated May 16, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - If I ever move to another country with a banker-turned-businessman husband, I would probably make like model, host, AFC celebrity chef and entrepreneur Vivien Tan-Vaca, who, upon missing the food from her homeland, Singapore, put up a restaurant that brought the food to her.

Singapore-born Vivien and Filipino husband Eduardo “Dudo” Vaca moved to the Philippines three years ago and Vivien missed her nasi goreng so much that they just had to create My Singapore Food Street to satisfy her cravings. “That’s the official story,” Dudo joked. It’s a kind of urban legend that, after having met the couple, I have reason to believe is true.

Vivien loves her spices. “I love everything spicy,” she said, with the same enthusiasm their three-year-old daughter Lucia beamed with when I told her she could play Clay Jam on my phone. She promptly gave me a tour of the restaurant, a hawker-style place following our hearty lunch of Hainanese chicken rice, grilled eggplant with tausi sauce and a tall glass of their famous kopi. A glass window stood between the kitchen and us as she talked me through its different stations: noodles, chicken, desserts, coffee, vegetables, etc. It took up a fifth of the space — a rather boss space, if you ask me. The area is massive and has a great view of EDSA.

I visited My Singapore Food Street at the 2nd level of the SM Megamall Bridgeway on a Tuesday, early in the afternoon. Even after the lunch crowd had dissipated, the kitchen remained busy. One of the cooks in charge of the wok station precision-tossed a flaming rice dish. “It takes confidence to do that,” said Vivien. Dudo also spoke proudly of their staff — one even tended to my dislodged wedge heel, and even offered me replacement sandals to wear while my broken shoe was being repaired.

“SM Megamall had a three-day sale last weekend,” he said. “The restaurant was packed until closing and they (the staff) loved it. They were just colors, rushing around the place.”

My Singapore Food Street reminded me of a hawker place in Singapore that a friend and I passed time at (eating) during a 12-hour layover, which we spent bookstore hopping, Warhol-hunting at the Ritz-Carlton Millenia and walking around in SG heat the majority of the time. I had my first Hainanese chicken meal that day. I took everybody’s ginger. Since then, I have hunted Manila for restaurants that serve Hainanese chicken and discovered that, unlike our adobo, it is pretty much the same recipe every time. So it became a matter of finding a restaurant that served the dish plus a generous side order of ambiance. And ambiance is what My Singapore Food Street, apart from good food, has going for it. The busy, hawker-style layout can for a moment trick you into thinking you are in Clarke Quay, until of course you look out the massive floor-to-ceiling window and get a good glimpse of EDSA traffic.

Vivien, however, noted that they did not replicate the Singapore hawker dining experience entirely, at least not through the service. “In Singapore, they ask you ‘What you want?’” she said, using a convincing Singlish accent. “Here, you can’t do that. The customers will get mad!” she said with a laugh. “You have to say ‘What can we do for you?’ ‘What will you be having?’” She added, “We also made it not so completely self-service. You have to line up to order, but that’s it.”

They’ve also made it a point to serve dishes that are freshly cooked, and use healthier ingredients. “We don’t use MSG in any of the dishes. MSG is actually used to open up the taste buds — it’s not a flavor and you don’t really need it,” said Vivien. Instead, they use fresh ingredients and a combination of spices to achieve the flavors of Singaporean cuisine.

If Vivien and Dudo’s sunshiny dispositions are any indication of the quality of their food (which, as my un-tampered with, MSG-free taste buds have gathered, is both authentic and delicious), then My Singapore Food Street could be just the ray of culinary sunshine we need to cut through the daily fast food flooding our diets. That their meals don’t cost more than a burger-fries-and-soda combo is also a happy plus.

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My Singapore Food Street is located on the 2nd level of the SM Megamall Bridgeway and is open during mall hours, Monday to Sunday.