“We’ll take all the dishes in large size,” I said.
The waitress responded… “I think you better go with the small size for just two of you.”
And she was right, even the small sized dishes were pretty huge – family sized portions.
As I took my first bite of beef stir fried in a wok with fresh crisp green onions, I knew this was immediately going to be on of my favorite restaurants in Singapore.
When you’re in Singapore, Kok Sen is one of the best places to eat zi char.
Kok Sen Restaurant – Zi Char
First, what is zi char (also sometimes spelled cze char)? – Zi char is a common term in Singapore, from the Hokkien Chinese dialect, that means cooked food, or food made to order.
So in more practical terms, the word refers to restaurants that serve all sorts of Chinese stir fried and deep fried dishes that are made as soon as you order them, usually from a choice of a long menu (not just a single dish like many hawkers would sell). Singapore, being heavily influenced by Hokkien Chinese, you’ll hear zi char commonly used.
When I asked where to eat zi char in Singapore, one of the top responses was Kok Sen Restaurant, and so I knew it was a place I couldn’t miss.
According to Dr. Leslie Tay from I Eat I Shoot I Post, Kok Sen is a long standing restaurant in Singapore, and they’ve been serving zi char in the same location along Keong Saik Road for a number of generations.
Kok Sen mostly specializes in Cantonese style food, rather than Teochew or Hokkien style Chinese dishes that are also popular in Singapore. Cantonese food is characterized by flaming wok cooked dishes, garlic and ginger, and plenty of soy sauce and oyster sauce seasoning.
Growing up I ate a lot of Cantonese food, and so Cantonese food is at the top of my list for comfort meals.
For as legendary and old school of a restaurant as Kok Sen, the menu, being quite new I think, was very neatly organized and very easy to order from.
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There are two sides of the menu, which happens to be very neatly designed and even laminated. All the dishes they serve are organized by the meat – so you’ll find chicken, tofu, prawn, pork, noodles, and even omelet as a category.
The only other choice you have once you’ve chosen your dishes, is what size to order.
Like I mentioned, I was ready to order the large size of everything, but the waitress looked at just my wife and I, and without hesitation said, “I think small is good.”
So unless you come with your whole family for a big party, small is probably the size to order. Then again, some of the dishes were so good, if given the chance again, I don’t know if I could resist ordering the large size.
Stir fried beef with spring onions
Right out of the wok, the plate of stir fried beef with spring onions arrived on our table, and the aroma was enough to leave me speechless with nothing I could do but dig in.
Price – $12 SGD
The dish included slices of beef, onions, ginger, and lots of big chopped up spring onions (green onions), which just by looking at them, I could tell they were lightly wilted, but still crisp at the same time.
The beef was tender, and perfectly flavored with just the right amount of soy sauce and oyster sauce, not too oily, but just complete delicious.
And along with the beef, what I really loved was the noticeable flavor of ginger. Finally, the green onions, just as they appeared, remained crisp and fresh tasting, without being too harsh.
Eating each bite with steamed rice was marvelous.
Sliced fish soup
Ying my wife was actually still a bit full from our previous meal at a hawker centre, followed by the best durian I had ever eaten in my life (video), which happened just an hour before eating here.
So she wanted something a little on the calming side. She ordered the sliced fish soup, and I wasn’t really thinking it was going to be much of a hit.
Price – $6 SGD (great value for this dish)
But as soon as it came to our table, even though you could tell it would be a plainer soup, it smelled and looked fantastic. The sliced fish soup included quite a lot of nice deboned sliced fish, plus whole stalks of choy sum, mushrooms, baby corn, and the broth was just very lightly salted, but very flavorful.
Again, it was the ginger that really stood out to me in the soup. The ginger came through nicely and very soothingly.
I honestly wasn’t expecting much, but the sliced fish soup was a great addition to our meal.
Claypot yong tau foo
One of the things they specialize in at Kok Sen Restaurant is different tofu dishes, and I chose to order their claypot yong tau foo.
Much different from the yong tau foo I sampled at a Chinatown hawker centre (video), this yong tau foo included a mix of different fish and pork meatballs and patties, all wrapped in an assortment of vegetables and tofu, then braised in gravy within a claypot.
Like the other two dishes, the claypot yong tau foo turned out to be spectacular and very home-made fresh tasting.
Price – $14 SGD
Each individual piece of yong tau foo was unique and colorful, there were peppers and eggplant, and pieces of tofu, all stuffed with fish cake and some with minced pork I think. The gravy was also very good, not too salty or oily, but very pleasantly seasoned perhaps with some fragrant sesame oil.
Additionally, from the claypot braise, I tasted some of that roasted flavor, similar to that comforting taste that comes in a bowl of claypot rice.
If you eat at Kok Sen, the claypot braised yong tau food is a must. But as mentioned in this review on Malay Mail Online, some of the dishes run out fast, especially the famous claypot yong tau foo, so you may need to arrive early to ensure you get it.
For myself, Kok Sen Restaurant is the type of place that you can go, sit down and be comfortable, knowing that whatever you order off the menu is going to be delicious.
My only regret about eating at Kok Sen Restaurant is not coming with enough people. I wanted to order a bunch more dishes, but portions are big, and not wanted to waste anything, we had to choose just three dishes.
When you’re in Singapore, eat at Kok Sen if you’re looking for a laid back restaurant that serves delicious and hot and fresh zi char.
NOTE: This restaurant can get very busy around peak dinner time (not sure how lunch is). I arrived right as they opened at 5 pm and we got a table outside. But when I was leaving at 6 pm, people were waiting for tables, both inside and outside. So it might be a good idea to arrive early.
Kok Sen Restaurant
Address: 30 Keong Saik Rd, Singapore
Open hours: 11:30 am – 2 pm and 5 pm – 11 pm daily
Prices: Our total bill for everything we ate came to $34 SGD. A meal like this doesn’t come cheap in Singapore, but for the quality and quantity of food, it was well worth it.
How to get there: It’s a short walk from Outram Park MRT station
On the map, scroll down to #14.