Pop-up dinners are just about a dime a dozen these days. They’re still cool, don’t get me wrong, but there are so many events happening all the time that you don’t have the same FOMO you used to get when everyone was at a pop up dinner that you didn’t get to attend.
So of course you’re not going to regret the fact that you didn’t make it to the totally awesome Singaporean Food Feast at Paper Co. Coffee last night, right? Maybe, just maybe, however, you might feel a teensy tiny bit of envy.
The thing is, Singaporean food like the kind we had last night — the down-home, authentically spiced, undiluted stuff like you’d get if you went to a Singaporean home, is hard to come by in Houston. We have Indonesian (Rice Bowl II) and Malaysian (Banana Leaf and Mamak), and we have a more refined, upscale Singaporean at Straits in CityCentre, but this went deeper.
Dave Foong, a native of Singapore and the head chef at Paper Co. Coffee, came up with the idea of the pop-up event in celebration of Singapore’s 50th anniversary this weekend. His menu was supposed to be five courses shared family style, but it ended up being more like ten.
“This is probably one of the best pop-ups I’ve ever been to,” said my friend Mechelle, who had corralled a table-full of friends to join her for the meal. At my table, we were seated with friends new and old, passing dishes to each other, sharing bottles of wine, sharing stories about food and travel and everything in between as we sampled dish after dish.
Have you ever heard of Kueh Pie Tee? I hadn’t until last night. It reminded me a bit like a deconstructed Indian pani poori, which are these small crispy cups filled with nuts, vegetables and spices. The Kueh Pie Tee was served in several components. There a bowl of small bowl of ridged crispy cups the size of shot glass. We were instructed to grab a cup and fill it with shredded squash, small cubes of Chinese lap cheong sausage, small pieces of shrimp, and to drizzle it with a viscous, sticky dark brown sauce that was kind of a cross between a Japanese nikiri glaze and a teriyaki sauce. Once you filled your cup to to the brim, you plopped the whole thing in your mouth at once — crispy, savory, fun and delicious.
Our second course of Laksa, a coconut seafood stew, was beautiful and rich, filled with calamari and shrimp, noodles, fried tofu, and thinly sliced fish cake.It was also really spicy (at least for me), causing my mouth to burn and tears to form (I am a spice wimp).
The third course turned out to be five mini courses — a beef rendang served with roti prata flatbread, followed by a ridiculously good lemongrass marinated chicken satay with fresh peanut sauce, and a spectacular sambal fish wrapped and steamed in banana leaf. Foong used local tile fish from the gulf for this dish, which was strongly seasoned and spiced. In fact, it was borderline on the salty side, its odor fairly pungent from the use of belacan (fermented shrimp paste). Served inside a banana leaf that was at least 12 inches long and eight inches wide, peeling back the leaf revealed a moist fish filet underneath a mixture of chili, onion, and herbs. “It’s as if the banana leaf infused the seasoning into the dish. It could be salty, but instead it’s all flavor,” opined my companion, who closed his eyes and nodded in appreciation as he took a bite of seconds.
Just when we thought things couldn’t get better, the first part of our fourth course arrived, a poached Hainanese chicken. This is a dish that is easy to get all around Houston in Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants. Some places steam the chicken, while others boil it. Foong used his mother’s recipe, and poached chicken breast to the perfect level of doneness, with just the barest hint of pink yet fully cooked through. It was so moist and tender to the bite, it was almost my undoing, I think I exclaimed “This is so amazing,” over and over again. “You’re happy," said Justin, a new friend who’d been seated next to me for the meal. Yes, I was.
“I’ve been to Tian Tian in Singapore, and this lived up to the memory,” Prohibition Houston’s chef Ben McPherson, who was sitting at my table, said when I asked him how he liked it. For those who don’t know, Tian Tian’s most famouse dish is its Hainanese Chicken in Rice.
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And yet, there was more. Our final savory course was the Singaporean chili crab. Foong took the traditional version, done with Dungeness Crab, and used tempura battered softshell crab instead. The crabs were served on of the an orange reddish, crab infused chili sauce that the dish is known for. Small fried buns, their consistency almost like a super crisp funnel cake, were served with this dish, and the idea was to use the bun to swipe up every last bit of sauce — so good.
The final course of the night was a soupy sago pudding with gula malacca. I had no idea what the gula malacca was, but assumed it was the slippery kind of chewy long piece of something that I found in the middle of the dessert (it's actually sugar from a coconut tree, combined with coconut milk to pour over the dessert). Sago pudding is coconut based thick soupy dessert filled with tiny tapioca. It’s dessert that is usually made in a big pot, ideal for family style meals. We received them in little pots that looked like pot de creme.
Paper Co. Coffee, for those who haven’t been there or don’t know about it, is housed adjacent to, and founded by Ecclesia Church, a holistic, missional Christian church. Proceeds for their pop-up events, like this one or the one that featured New York chef Hong Thaimee several months ago, fund their community mission.
The proceeds for this particular dinner will help fund an event they call the Harmony House Barbecue, but the Paper Co. Coffee, and the church, do so much more for the community. Every day, they offer a Daily Common Meal for just $1. The idea behind it is a “pay-it-forward” kind of approach. They invite everyone for the meal to pay what they can. Patrons who normally wouldn’t be able to afford a meal get to sit down (and pay) for their dinner, even if all they can afford is $1. Patrons who can afford more contribute more to help fund the meal. The Daily Common Meal is offered whenever the kitchen is open, Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays for dinner after 6 p.m.