There are plenty of reasons that the cuisine of Singapore hasn't really caught on in the United States: After all, it's a country of just over 5 million—greater Houston is more than a million people bigger. And like Houston, Singapore is a melting pot. Its native cuisine comprises influences of settlers from Malaysia (the island nation's closest neighbor), China and India, to name a few. There are few dishes that are truly and wholly Singaporean, perhaps partly due to the relative newness of the country's independence—it was a British colony from the early 19th century until 1963, when it joined forces with Malaysia, from which it split two years later.
If anything, Houstonia is exceptionally lucky to lay claim to two Singaporean restaurants: upscale Straits in CityCentre and Singapore Café in a strip mall on Highway 6 in Sugar Land. I visited the latter on Saturday and immediately felt defeated upon seeing the menu; with more than 90 dishes, there was no way I could get a good overview of the offerings. I was only able to order three items, but tried to represent some classics.
Indo-Malaysian roti canai was a clear must. Who can ever say no to two buttery flatbreads with a bowl of curry for dipping? Though the dish was labeled with a chile pepper, there was little heat in the thin, watery sauce. And as much as I enjoyed tearing into the roti, I suspected that it had not been baked in-house. The resemblance in flavor to a Pillsbury crescent roll was just a bit too pronounced.
But matters quickly improved. Poached chicken is not for everyone. But Hainanese chicken rice can earn ardor even from the greatest crisp-skin devotees. The secret is the rice, cooked with the unctuous broth left by the chicken when it leaves the water. The rice is intensely flavored with schmaltz, yes, but it's the ginger, garlic and pandan that give it the exotic beauty that makes it almost impossible to stop eating. Like steak-frites, it's a dish in which the protein is almost an afterthought when the starch is done right. Such is the case at Singapore Café, where I ate far more rice than moist chicken. Both, however, benefitted from the garlicky chile sauce served on the side.
But portions are such at Singapore Café that it's nigh impossible to demolish a rice plate in a single sitting. Believe me, I tried especially hard in the case of the salted fish fried rice. Pillows of scrambled egg and tender cod mingled with cubes of firm, homemade salted fish that recalled slightly smoky piscine ham. The textural variety made me spoon yet another portion, then another, onto my plate, even after I judged the dish a bit too salty.
But I've always said my only vices are salt and fat. And as it turns out, Singapore Café is not a bad place to indulge in both.