Charlie's Nonya angels are back
Retired maverick Baba chef returns with an impressive Peranakan menu
Here's some good news to start the year with - good ol' Charlie's back.
Charlie Tan was that maverick Baba chef who hopped from one spot to another, from Katong to Thomson... until I lost track of him.
He had actually hung up his tumbuk (mortar and pestle) eight years ago to take it easy.
Yet after suffering a stroke two years ago, he was inspired to return to the kitchen - to "while away what is left of my life before that big father stroke visits", he told me.
So Charlie and his wife Amy set up this Golden Mile stall that - for a little kitchen cubicle - has one of the most impressive Nonya menus.
But ignore the sign that says tteokbokki - Korean rice cakes - will be served with his classic Nonya fare. "It was a promotion idea, but my customers told me to not waste time with it," he admits with a smile and shrug.
To know what specials are really on offer, refer to Charlie's whiteboard with a scribbled list of around 16 items.
I like the babi tulang buak keluak. This old-school spare rib take on the dish is far better than the gentler chicken version, which is also available. The pork lends more flavour and the touch of assam makes this as good as it gets.
I also like the ayam rendang, similar to an Indonesian ayam gulai (chicken curry).
Charlie's version is very lemak (rich) yet not too spicy and the chicken still had spring to the bite.
Get his babi pongteh fresh from the pot and you get to relish crunchy slices of bamboo shoot that don't dominate the flavour of the belly pork - pork cooked with tau cheo (fermented bean paste) and soy sauce base. However, fussy Nonyas know it will only get better if you let it sit for half a day more.
What surprised me was his nangka lemak ($7), a jackfruit-core curry. The key word is "lemak", rich and done unlike many versions at nasi padang stalls. Smear a bit of his refreshing and bold sambal belacan over rice with this and savour.
The star item, however, is Charlie's $20 claypot of lo kai yik is a must-have and good for four people. It's distinctive reddish pink hue comes from the nam yu (fermented red yam) and tau cheo.
Charlie is generous with ingredients - chicken wings, tofu, cuttlefish, pork, intestines and kang kong. There is a sweetness buried in the stew that comes from all those ingredients.
However, I cannot praise all of the items we ate, so I will be objective.
As this is mostly a one-man-kitchen operation, slip-ups do occur occasionally.
Charlie's is open seven days a week. I urged him to take at least a day off and go on a break to maintain his sanity.
I hope he does.
He tells me he is looking for a "disciple" or intern to inherit his skills.
"Before I return to my maker," he said with a laugh.
Charlie's Peranakan Food
505, Beach Road, #B1-30,
Golden Mile Hawker Centre
Opens 11.30am to 7.30pm daily
Tel: 8147-4832 (Amy)
KF Seetoh, the founder of Makansutra, dabbles in street food businesses like Food Markets and has his own TV shows on cable. He publishes food guides and online content. He is also the creator of the World Street Food Congress. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.