Str Tao Taiwan Cuisine dishes up an especially good braised beef noodle soup from within an ulu kopitiam.
Str Tao Taiwan Cuisine dishes up an especially good braised beef noodle soup from within an ulu kopitiam.
We’re at a coffee shop deep within an industrial estate in Jurong East. As we speak to the owner of Str Tao – pronounced Street Tao – Taiwan Cuisine we’re periodically interrupted by the shrill crash of metal on metal, or the teeth-rattling rumble of a heavy vehicle passing on by. It’s the last place you’d expect to find a hip Taiwanese stall complete with kooky decor and corny jokes to entertain you whilst you wait for your food.
Though that’s exactly where 33-year-old Johnson Ngiao decided to set up shop, a couple of years after leaving his high-flying job of eight years as a sous chef at a chain of well-established Chinese restaurants that he declines to reveal. The Alor Setar-born hawker started Str Tao Taiwan Cuisine on September 1 with a silent partner whom he’d worked with previously; they opened a version of the concept in a Ngee Ann Polytechnic canteen circa 2018, but it failed to take off there.
As for his eats, it’s everything but the kitchen sink when it comes to the pantheon of popular Taiwanese food. We’re not kidding – there’re 36 items on their menu in all, unusual and quite ambitious for a stall that doesn’t sell cai fan or zi char. Expect mains like lu rou fan (braised pork rice), oyster mee sua, hong shao beef noodles and the inexplicably trending Din Tai Fung-style fried rice; as well as snacks like spring onion pancakes, sweet potato fries and fried chicken cutlet.
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We jest about Str Tao Taiwan Cuisine’s extensive menu, but it’s born out of Johnson’s ardour for the cuisine. “I fell in love with Taiwanese food as it was the first thing I learnt to cook,” he shares affably in a mix of Mandarin and English. “I love to cook it, and I love to eat it. So why not open a shop selling it?”
The hawker’s kitchen career began in Taiwan, where he sojourned for four years pursuing a diploma in Business Management. “I was studying and working at the same time. It was all part-time at restaurants, kiosks, everything,” he says.
After finishing up his studies, he decided to come to Singapore and pursue a career as a chef. He started out at a zi char joint and now-defunct Taiwanese restaurant in Jurong Point (he can’t recall the name), before spending the bulk of his career at the hotel restaurant until leaving in 2018.
“2018 was a very special year for me,” he answers when we ask why he decided to leave a well-paying job in a hotel kitchen. “My wife gave birth to a pair of twin boys. I was very happy and wanted the flexibility to spend more time with them.”
He pauses, as if anticipating our inevitable follow-up – isn’t the hawker life tougher – which he replies with a booming laugh. “Exactly! It was the exact opposite. Now I’m even busier. Actually, it’s also about being confident in my own abilities to run my own business. I wanted to work for myself,” he continues.
What followed was a period of experimentation (with the same silent partner) – the first iteration of Str Tao Taiwan Cuisine at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, closely followed by a Thai-style mookata and zi char joint in Bukit Batok. Finally, he shifted to their current industrial kopitiam in Toh Guan East in late 2020, where he sold local-style zi char food for the next 10 months.
Despite having weathered the closure of three F&B ventures within three years, Johnson remains enthusiastic.
“It’s about finding out what customers want,” he explains. “After the first stall [in Ngee Ann Polytechnic], we tried switching to mookata as it was very trendy then. But our location wasn’t good.” A rather puzzling reply, given that we were about to have Taiwanese nosh in an ulu industrial canteen, until he adds, “We chose this location for a few reasons. First, the rent is manageable. Secondly, if not for people working from home, the lunch crowd here will be very good – so good that you don’t even need to open for dinner.”
He adds, “But we’re still doing okay now thanks to delivery. We can hit a lot of residential areas nearby for delivery [despite not opting for islandwide delivery coverage].” Johnson reckons that the shift to delivery is all part of the new normal. “Some hawkers refused to switch to delivery, but we don’t think it’s possible anymore [in today’s climate]. You must shift with the times, if not you’ll get left behind,” he says.
The hawker’s focus in the short term includes settling his manpower woes (one of his three staff members calls in to quit, right in the middle of our interview, in fact) before expanding operations to get in on group buys. “It’s too early to talk about anything else,” he adds.
Johnson’s years in a professional kitchen lend him an easy-going air as he moves through the cramped kitchen – dodging around with various pots, pans and trays containing the myriad of Taiwanese grub on offer.
Most items are made in-house, though some, like the Taiwanese spring onion pancakes, are from a supplier. Others, like the deep-fried chicken cutlets or sweet potato fries, are par-fried and finished later to save time. “During the lunch rush, there’s no way we can handle it if we don’t prepare some food beforehand,” he explains.
Still, the food isn’t exactly kopitiam-standard fare. He handles an all-purpose pair of tongs like a pair of chef’s tweezers, arranging the nosh precisely before applying a delicate drizzle of sauce via squeeze bottle.
The prices here are steeper than average to match. The starter price for a main like Taiwan mee sua or braised pork rice is $6.80, and goes as high as $10.80.
Sizable chunks of pork belly – a departure from the finer pieces you’d typically get in one of Taiwan’s most iconic comfort foods – are braised for two hours with fried shallots, soya paste and a secret mix of spices (we taste some star anise and cinnamon), and served over Taiwanese pearl rice.
“If it’s too fine, you don’t know what you’re eating. This way, customers can see and feel that they’re eating pork belly [and not a cheaper cut with added lard],” he says. You get a house pickle of cabbage and carrot on the side, along with some canned braised peanuts and spring onions. Pretty yummy, as the pork is agreeably tender with a thick, moreish gravy that coats the plump grains well.
We find the braise a little too spice-forward for our liking, but that can be mellowed out with the assertive spice of the accompanying dry chilli mix, a fiery blend of chilli padi, garlic, spices and deep-fried shallots.
Umami-rich bonito flakes form the base of this competent bowl of mee sua, contrasted against the intensity of a heaping spoonful of minced, raw garlic and a generous splash of black vinegar. While we enjoy it, those who aren’t fond of the punchiness of raw garlic might want to ask Johnson to lay off on it, though he swears by it. “It’s a must-have,” he says. We got ours with plump, clean-tasting oysters – quite delish.
He also adds a hae bee-infused chilli oil to the bowl, which adds some spicy-savouriness to the dish, with less kick compared to the dry chilli we had with the lu rou fan. For this, we could go without it.
This dish is getting quite trendy, perhaps even on the verge of becoming ubiquitous, something Johnson is also aware of. That said, we wouldn’t call this one of his star dishes. We found the Taiwanese pearl rice grains lacking in wok hei and a little clumpy (though still chewy). The odd salad of shredded lettuce and sesame dressing on the side doesn’t do much for us either.
Unlike other places we’ve recently reviewed, the hawker opts to pan-fry his pork cutlet (that’s been marinated with salt and pepper for around four hours), resulting in a slightly anaemic-looking chop. However, it makes up for lack of colour with juiciness within and a tender, QQ bite that we enjoy.
The most expensive item on Str Tao Taiwan Cuisine’s menu, for good reason. You get a generous portion of beef shank that’s first sauteed with fermented bean paste and garlic, then left to bubble away for five hours with cinnamon, star anise and peppercorns. The result is an umami-rich, hefty broth that’s very slurpable. It’s served with thin rice noodles and diced salted veg, as well as a generous spoonful of chilli oil. The beef, which comes as sizable chunks, isn’t fall-apart tender – our only gripe – but soft enough to get through within a couple of bites.
Thinnish wedges of sweet potato are battered in a mix of five flours (Johnson won’t say what) and par-fried. They’re finished upon order and covered with plum powder, salt (and probably a fair portion of MSG). The batter forms a ridiculously crispy coat that shatters when we bite into it. Worth every calorie.
Despite the catchy name, this deep-fried chicken cutlet isn’t too explosive (heat-wise). The chicken breast itself is given the same salt-and-pepper treatment as the pork cutlet from the fried rice dish. The pre-fried chook is refried and cut into bite-sized chunks, before being dusted off with the same salt and plum powder combo as the fries and an extra coat of chilli powder.
It’s spicy enough that you don’t quite taste the plum, but overall, it’s a little disappointing (especially after the fries). The batter is crunchy, but the chicken within is dry. At least it’s not greasy.
Their scallion pancakes – aka cong you bing – are taken from a supplier, but you can’t really go wrong with this simple treat (according to Johnson, it’s far and away one of his bestsellers). You get egg, spring onion and a square of processed cheese within the crispy pancake, along with some pork floss on top and little dollops of nacho cheese on the side. Yum.
Str Tao Taiwan Cuisine serves up more than decent grub at a higher price point than you’d typically expect from a coffee shop in an industrial estate. Zero in their mee sua or addictive sweet potato fries – or splurge on the tasty hong shao beef noodles.
Str Tao Taiwan Cuisine is at #01-130, 48 Toh Guan Rd E, S608586. Tel: 8141-2653. Open daily except Thu, 11am – 9.30pm. More info via
Photos: Kelvin Chia
All photos cannot be reproduced without permission from 8days.sg
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