It was like running into an old friend after many years.
The chicken hanging in front of the hawker stall looked familiar. The lady behind the counter looked familiar. When I approached her, I suddenly realized she used to operate one of the oldest, but now gone, Chinese restaurants in Chinatown -- Sun Nam Tong (新南唐).
Located at the end of Smith Street (next to Neil Road), the two-storey Sun Nam Tong offered dim sum in the morning and ala carte at lunch and dinner. It later relocated to South Bridge Road, directly opposite Yue Hwa Department Store, where it remained until the mid-2000s; by which time, Mdm Siew Pui Yin (萧佩英), the 2nd generation owner, was helming the restaurant.
The Rose Wine Soy Chicken became the restaurant’s bestseller; however when the building needed overhaul, Ms Siew abruptly closed Sun Nam Tong.
She vanished from the scene for more than 10 years, until, encouraged by friends and investors, she made a return as the chief cook of this hawker stall. The then-famous chicken has also gotten a new name -- Maria Virgin Chicken -- in tribute to Mdm Siew’s sworn sister, the well-known Hong Kong entertainer Maria Cordero.
To my delight, the chicken lived up to its old glory. The sauce was delicately balanced with the right amount of superior soy sauce and mixed herbs. In most cases the herbs would tend to dominate or even overwhelm, but here, the herbs served as complement, and supported or “brought out” the principal flavors of the soy sauce.
Biting into the meat, there was a slight fragrance of Rose wine; the best thing though, was its texture -- tender, springy, and done just barely, with the bone hollows still pink. The meat held its integrity, unlike other chicken rice sellers whose chicken seemed to “disintegrate” into short fibers when bitten into. Mdm Siew proudly claims that she uses fresh, free-range chicken instead of the frozen variety – and that, I think, made all the difference in meat fiber integrity.
Even the rice reminded me of the old days with its “old school” flavor. Instead of the glooey black sauce, or oil-and-soy sauce mix, typically poured onto rice these days, this stall uses a good-grade dark soy sauce with a subtle sweetness. My only gripe would be the chilli sauce, which was garlicky but otherwise bland when I ate there.
A telling observation was how adept Mdm Siew was with the chopping knife. She must had been a very hands-on “towkay neo” (boss lady) at her old illustrious restaurant! The chicken bones she severed with her knife were cut cleanly through, without the splintering often seen in bones cut by less experienced hands.
All said, I was overjoyed that an old (and I thought, forever lost) taste had been rekindled, and a top-notch veteran restaurateur was back in action.
Maria Virgin Chicken (玛俐亚处女鸡)
#02-176 Chinatown Complex
335 Smith Street