Photo: Desmond Wee / ST
The space that the popular Song Kee Fishball Noodles occupied at 532 Upper Serangoon Road has a new tenant, and it has ties with the old noodle shop.
Called Finest SongKee's Fishball Noodle, the new shop, which opened on Sept 1, is co-owned by Mr Chua Cheng Heng, a cousin of Mr Chua Poh Seng and his two older brothers, who used to run Song Kee.
The menu and pricing remain the same. Diners can order five dishes, including dry mee pok, kway teow soup and fish dumpling (her kiao) soup. Prices range from $4 to $8.
Song Kee is known for its fishballs, fish dumplings and tau pok filled with fish paste - all made by hand with yellowtail fish.
Last month, Song Kee Fishball Noodles made headlines when it closed down suddenly. The Chua brothers said they had health problems that made it tough to continue the business.
The takeover of the shop did not happen out of the blue, as Mr Chua Cheng Heng, who also runs Song Kee Kway Teow Noodle Soup at Block 75, Toa Payoh Lorong 5, had noticed that his cousins were gradually getting more involved in the car-trading business earlier this year.
He was then approached by the shophouse's landlord to rent the unit in June. This coincided with his plans to expand his business.
A regular customer at his Toa Payoh stall, who is in the food and beverage industry, had broached the idea of taking the stall out of the hawker centre in June this year. He also has a third partner, who is in the property business.
The 38-year-old, who has received about 10 business partnership offers over the past decade, says: "This partnership felt right as we have the same idea and vision to grow the business."
Their plan? To open a "modern fusion-style" restaurant in a shopping mall in town, to be more accessible to tourists.
He adds: "I am passionate about cooking fishball noodles and hope that when people think of having the dish, the name 'Song Kee' comes to mind, just like how Boon Tong Kee is synonymous with chicken rice. And I hope more foreigners can taste our local food."
When contacted by The Straits Times, Mr Chua Poh Seng, 44, would say only that he did not know his cousin would be taking over the shop space and declined to comment as he is "no longer in the food industry".
Started in 1966, Song Kee opened in Toa Payoh before moving to Jurong East in 1989. Twenty years later, it moved to its current Upper Serangoon Road location. It also has branches in Simei and Ang Mo Kio that are run by the Chua family.
According to Mr Chua Cheng Heng, who has been helping out at his father's stall in Toa Payoh since he was 11, the fishball noodle recipe originated from his grandfather, who was a street hawker in Balestier.
Finest SongKee's sells about 450 bowls of noodles daily. Mr Chua pulls in 18-hour work days, making 1,000 meatballs, 1,000 fish dumplings and 1,600 fishballs every day. To overcome manpower woes, he is looking at automation.
He added fish dumplings to the menu at his Toa Payoh stall last week. He did not sell them previously.
He also plans to revive the idea of serving more varieties of fish side dishes - something that he did at his fishball noodle restaurant in Upper Thomson Road that closed down 18 years ago due to high rental.
These dishes include fried fish roll, which has fish paste and vegetables rolled in fish meat, fried breaded fish cutlet, abalone and fish paste balls as well as prawn balls, accompanied with dipping sauces such as a Korean sweet and sour sauce his Korean wife developed.
There are also plans to serve noodles and pasta on hotplates with fishballs and fish dumplings.
He quips: "I have a lot of strange ideas and I have been waiting for close to 20 years to fulfil these dreams."
Most of the customers interviewed say they are satisfied with the quality of the food at Finest SongKee's, though they feel that some elements are not the same. They are also relieved that the waiting time for the food is now shorter. When The Straits Times visited the shop on Tuesday during dinner time, the wait took 15 minutes, compared to about 45 minutes before.
Mr Christian Cheong, 51, a pastor who was a Song Kee regular, says: "The kway teow soup noodles are now less oily, but the fish dumplings are more salty and the sauce in the dry mee pok is more sour. I will still return as the fishballs are tastier than at other stalls. "
Make-up artist Molly Leong, 52, who visited Song Kee three times a week, gave the fishball noodles at the new shop "six out of 10 marks".
She says: "Though the fish meat ingredients taste the same, the chilli sauce is not as spicy and does not have the same kick. I miss the whole package of tucking into the noodles while sweating and listening to loud 1980s music in the shop."
This article was first published on StraitsTimes.com.