195 Pearl Hill Cafe, Chinatown: The Haunting (Good Food) of (Pearl) Hill (Terrace) House

Located on a mound behind People’s Park Food Centre, 195 Pearl Hill Cafe requires some legwork to climb up the stairs. Be prepared to do a little cardio if you don’t drive.

It’s a strange little cafe. The menu is a combination of Hainanese pork satay and Italian staple, pasta, salads, and sandwiches.

If that’s not strange enough, there is no cafe. By that, I mean there isn’t a physical space. Pearl Hill Terrace is designed like a school (historically it’s an old police station) and the cafe’s kitchen occupies the entirety of a small pantry-like room.

Makeshift foldable tables and plastic stools are placed along the corridor. And at the corridor is the satay man (whose name is Ah Pui) with his tin box of burning charcoal. Charcoal smoke fills the air, acting as a rudimentary form of mosquito repellent, and also body deodorant for your fellow mrt passengers after you leave the place, on your way home.

I’m in Florence! PS: they enlarge David’s genital!

(Elsewhere, imitations of famous Italian statues line the building whose walls are painted with neat but vibrant street art, surrounded with verdure. The space exudes an uncanny mix of mellow kampong vibe, a postcolonial fascination with European art, and a nostalgia for 80s.)

The Tiong Bahru satay man, Ah Pui, started illegally with a wooden push cart more than 40 years ago. After playing “catching” and “hide and seek” with the authorities, he legalised his business and has now set roots here at the cafe.

Hainanese pork satay

The Hainanese pork satay (10pc, $9) is excellent. I have eaten tenderer pork satay but there is a piece of lard on every stick, giving it juice. It’s grilled gorgeously with burnt ends. Smokey. I love that it’s slightly bigger than the usual satay, giving a great mouthfeel.

In the peanut sauce there is homemade pineapple purée; you can still see strands of fibre. Wonderful, probably the best peanut sauce I’ve tasted. The sauce is so great, I wonder if they could have made it into a pasta, like satay bee hoon. Satay pasta seems very on brand for the cafe.

Pomodoro chicken pasta

Speaking of pasta, their pastas are fantastic too. They don’t stray away from classics and don’t seek to innovate but the two pastas we had were quite amazing.

Many chefs say their pasta is cooked al dente but few can achieve the standard here. The texture of linguine is perfect. It’s bouncy but not hard or doughy. It’s a joy chewing it.

Too bad they ran out of homemade pesto. (A woman who arrived after us quickly went to “chope” 5 pesto chicken pasta so we couldn’t have any. URGH.)

Aglio olio prawn

The aglio olio prawn ($13.90) doesn’t have many ingredients. Just linguine tossed in garlic and olive oil with about 8 prawns. But it’s easy, breezy, cooling on a hot day.

The pomodoro chicken pasta ($13.90) – it’s quite obvious that the tomato sauce is homemade because it tastes different from the generic sauce. It’s lighter, more appetising, tangier which I enjoy. You can taste the integrity of the tomatoes.

The chicken breast in the pasta, however, doesn’t take on the flavour. So the meat seems plain.

Bo Bo Chow Chow

For desserts, the bo bo chow chow ($5.90) is a mix of bobo chacha and jing chow (grass jelly). Think of this as Blackball or 九鲜. I don’t like blackball and 九鲜 but this one is awesome. Maybe it’s because they hand make their own taro balls with Japanese sweet potato using traditional method. It tastes more “natural”.

Besides the charcoal smoke drenching your clothes, the other area that can be improved is that the food took some time to arrive, although the main man fronting the cafe is friendly and good natured, the type I would vote for in an election. PAP might want to recruit him to prevent more slippage in future elections.

Matcha from Shizuoka, and Nanyang latte

While the service is slow, the food is made delicately and priced reasonably. Their drinks are on the light side, on brand for the cafe, and not a bad thing. Including an iced Nanyang latte ($6, Indonesian Robusta coffee beans roasted with butter and sugar), and iced matcha ($6) from a tea farm in Shizuoka, we paid about $42 for two persons.

195 Pearl Hill Cafe
195 Pearl’s Hill Terrace #01-56 Singapore 168976
tel: +65 9748 9904
11am – 8pm, closed Sun

Food: 7.5/10
Price/value: 7/10
Decor/ambience: 6/10
Service: 7/10

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Written by Dr. A. Nathanael Ho.

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