So when is a Cze Char a Cze Char and when does it become a restaurant? With the increasing number of Cze Char places becoming air-conditioned, the line between Cze Char and restaurant nowadays is not as distinct as before. In the past, the Cze Char has always been that corner of the coffeeshop where you go to order your Hor Fun, Sweet and Sour Pork and Cereal Prawns. They might provide some napkins and a pink plastic tablecloth but that’s about it. Nowadays a lot of Cze Char have gone up market by moving into a standalone shophouse. They will have air-conditioning, table cloths and cold towels. Yet, some I will still consider Cze Char while others should rightly be called restaurants.
There is of course no hard and fast rules on when a Cze Char becomes a restaurant, but to me, one of the things I look for is whether they include the GST and service charge in the bill. Once there is GST and service charge, then I think they should rightly be called a restaurant. The other things are of course, the menu items. The standard Cze Char dishes like hot plate tofu, Jing Du pork ribs, braised pork belly in claypot are some of the dishes which we associate Cze Char with, whereas Peking Duck and Buddha Jumps over the wall belong more on a restaurant’s menu. Again, there is a lot of overlap so one cannot be too dogmatic.
Now, you might be asking what does it matter anyway?
Well, I think that once I label a particular place a Cze Char, then there is a general expectation that it is going to be very casual and serves typically Singaporean food at reasonable prices. Yi Jia South Village fits nicely into that definition. The place is air-conditioned and they provide table cloths, towels, peanuts and crackers. There was no GST or service Charge, so the 7 of us only paid $6.10 or less than a dollar each to dine in aircon comfort which really isn’t bad considering that the tofu and vegetable dishes cost $8 – $12. So I think that makes Yi Jia South Village an Air-Con Cze Char place.
The most iconic dish for this place has to be the Prawn Balls in Honeydew. I don’t think I have ever seen another restaurant serving this dish. They use wild caught Ang Kah (Banana) prawns to make the prawn balls, so there is nice prawny flavour in the fritters. The sweet and sauce made from honeydew melon is not so distinct that you would immediately tell that it was honeydew if not for the hollowed out melon that the prawns are served in. If it were served on a plate, it would simply taste like sweet and sour prawn balls. It is very well executed and so it is a very safe dish to order that will appeal to everyone. 4/5
I was very impressed with their live mussels which are nice, big and juicy. They have a supplier that brings in these mussels from Vietnam and they are excellent. Simply steamed and then topped with soy sauce and garlic, they make little umami bombs that would go well with beer! 4.5/5
I am not sure who started selling crispy fried pork knuckles at the Cze Char but I am quite sure it must have been someone who enjoyed the German version and decided that it would be a great dish that the Coffeshop Beer lady can recommend at the coffeeshop to make people order more drinks!
I was quite pleasantly surprised with the version here and it is probably the est pork knuckle I have had at any Cze Char so far. They managed to get the skin super crispy while the meat is still tender and juicy. Most places can get the skin crispy but at the expense of the meat drying out. So if you are looking for crispy pork knuckle, I would highly recommend this place for it. 4.25/5
Rochelle is the lady boss here. She’s a Filipino who married one of our local boys and has been helping her husband run the Cze Char at Toa Payoh Lor 7 for over 20 years. She introduced us to a very unique vegetable which they specially source from Cameron Highlands. This is the first time I have come across these Qing Long Cai (清龙菜) and they are very nice. They are crisp without being fibrous and the chefs simply fries them with some dried prawns and garlic. Definitely worth ordering. 4.25/5
This makan place was introduced to us by Nick, one of our newest kakis and this is sort of his initiation rite to prove that his taste buds are in good order. The group passed him with for most of the dishes he recommended with the exception of the Claypot Chicken Soup which our kakis felt could be better if it had a stronger herbal flavour. I actually found it quite comforting. It is quite an unusual dish for a Cze Char and the kind of dish that you would yearn to eat if you are recovering from a cold. 4/5
The Chye Poh Tofu was also highly recommended by Nick. This was a dish that I remember was creating lots of interest years ago when I started blogging. Nowadays it has lost some of its novelty and many Cze Chars are offering their own rendition of the dish. The tofu here is excellent. It is smooth and has a thin layer of crust which is fried evenly. The Chye Poh was done in a style that is very light. A little too light, I felt, such that I am missing the full umami punch of stewed chye poh. It’s a safe dish to order for the kids. 4/5
I think air-con Cze Char places are the way to go for the Cze Char of the future. However, the food has to be good and stay close to the Singaporean heartlander’s taste buds while the prices remain affordable for the typical Singaporean family. I think Yi Jia South has managed to find the right balance and we will see more Cze Chars going the same way in the future.
Yi Jia South Village Seafood Restaurant