I constantly find myself looking up when walking around Singapore. The country is notorious for its constantly changing landscape; down goes an old apartment complex and hawker center, up go the kind of modern marvels you don't even see in the US. I'm a sucker for them - if I had my way, I'd live in one those sixty story condo complexes with jungle gardens, rooftop pools, and robot butlers. I've always wanted to live in the futuristic world you see in movies, but since that doesn't exist, Singapore and Korea are suitable substitutes. With a country the size of Singapore (somewhere bigger than the city of Chicago and smaller than Memphis...with 5 million people), the effect of the build, build, build way of thinking has obvious effects on the once historical neighborhoods. Traditional homes and shophouses have been swept aside, with a few notable omissions. One of which is the Tiong Bahru neighborhood.
I'd been to Tiong Bahru before, but mostly in the evening and never set about to explore it. As Patricia, my girlfriend, and I ambled around, I suddenly felt like I wasn't in Singapore at all. The Tiong Bahru Estate was built in the 1930's with an Art Deco meets Singaporean shophouse design. Flat roofs and rounded buildings abound. It's like someone in Singapore visited Miami and said "that's what I'm going to build!"
Within 30 minutes of our walkabout, the heat had defeated us. Dehydration was creeping in. Luckily (I guess), Tiong Bahru has become a bit of a hipster hideaway. Replacing the old chicken rice and curry puff stalls are rows of artisan coffee houses, cafes, eateries, and art stores. It's on its way to being Singapore's Williamsburg.
I felt like I was in Portlandia when I went into BooksActually, a store that actually sells books. The young staff all wore the same glasses their parents did in the 80's, there were two mean cats eyeballing me, and the back of store was a mini-antique shop, selling old cups, Japanese magazines, and various other oddities no one will ever buy.
We made our way into Forty Hands Coffee, an Australian-owned shop. They partnered with Five Senses Coffee Australia to create Common Man Coffee Roasters, importing and roasting their beans in Singapore. The result is an elevated coffee experience, not unlike Sump or Blueprint in St. Louis. Below is their cold-drip, perfect for helping your kidneys regain functionality after a long walk outside.
The menu is primarily Western, with sandwiches, salads, and mac & cheese, but there's Asian influence, as well. The menu touts their tau sar pau (red bean bun) as being Singapore's best, they have a red bean poster on the wall, and the staff said we should get it. So we did.
The hockey puck sized bun was dropped off just after it came out of the steamer. Lacking patience, I cut/tore it in half (burning my fingers), then took a bite (burning my mouth). I haven't had all that many red bean buns in my life, but this was the best I can remember. Super fluffy bread and a smooth, not overly sweet paste inside.
I've been let down so many times by Western dishes in Singapore, but I couldn't help myself: I had to try the 40 Hands Cubano. To our surprise, they pulled it off! Mojo pork, honey-smoked ham, jalapeño, and cheese on crusty Tiong Bahru Bakery baguette made for a solid sandwich, though meats both could have been more flavorful. When you say the ham is smoked, I want to taste that.
The real surprise came from the Kong Bak Pau (Asian pork sliders). Steamed buns, lettuce, and a cup full of fall-apart tender pork braised in a soy-garlic concoction. I could have eaten 3 or 4 of these myself.
Feeling a bit unhealthy after our carbs and pork lunch, we decided to walk down the street to Plain Vanilla, a cafe and bakery. I loved the design - They made the front section a covered outdoor seating area with the door to actually go inside the shop way back there. A pretty bold move to not have an airconned sitting area for customers in a place just off the equator, but it was surprisingly pleasant out there.
While you wait for your coffee or pastry to be prepared, you can spin around and check out their wall of goods for sale, ranging from gourmet honey and jam to decorative pillows that you'll remove before guests arrive so they don't touch them with their filthy hands.
Thank god I had already eaten lunch, because I would have gone mental in here otherwise. Salted caramel truffle tarts beckoned me, massive brownies dusted in cocoa powder begged me to eat them, lemon cream tarts taunted me. I regained control of myself and took a step back, stopping myself from ordering one of everything. Seeing as Patricia is the Tiong Bahru expert and person who brought me to Plain Vanilla, I let her pick.
She went for the Earl Grey Lavender Cupcake, a bold choice because cupcakes are usually worthless pieces of garbage. Shitty bakeries get away with selling cupcakes because they can dress them up pretty. If I can make the same thing at home with little effort, I don't want to spend $5 on each one at your shop.
Every once in awhile, I can be wrong. The Earl Grey Lavender cupcake was actually delicious. Soft cake with the distinct Earl Grey flavor of black tea and bergamot, topped with a light (and most importantly, not too sweet) lavender icing. Cupcakes are still bullshit, but Plain Vanilla gets a pass.
If you're a visitor to Singapore or a local Singaporean who hasn't spent much time in Tiong Bahru, I implore you to go. Support the small local businesses, spend some time walking through the old neighborhoods. Who knows when it will all be torn down to make way for something 'better'.