MANILA, Philippines — Anyone who has ever been to Singapore can easily become an expert on food. A melting pot of a variety of cultures—from the omnipresent Chinese and Indians, to Malaysians, Europeans, and now, Filipinos—there is a dream-fever quality to the island nation, particularly if you’re a budding gastro-tourist.

Outdoors, the heat is oppressive. In the ubiquitous malls, the subzero air-conditioning could frost a bottle of beer. And in the middle of it all, everyone—when not shopping or en route to the next business meeting—is on a feeding frenzy in the clustered “hawker stands” lining the streets. These “eating houses” offer an unlimited variety of Asian mom-and-pop operations, each specializing on one or two dishes, and they attract tourists, street dwellers and business professionals alike.

Such concepts have steadily been catching on in the Philippine market of late, especially with international travel exposing Filipinos to the interesting flavors that define Singaporean and other Asian cuisines.

From Hawker to High-end

Dining out has never been more interesting locally, especially with the arrival of Singaporean franchise Wee Nam Kee in the Makati CBD. A Singaporean franchise famous for its Chicken Rice and Cereal Prawns, the concept restaurant found its way to Philippine shores through the business partnership of Linfred Yap and Weizer Co.

“If there is a national dish in Singapore, it would be this,” shares Yap, who worked in Procter & Gamble Singapore for three years. “Our office was located across the main Wee Nam Kee branch and we would usually bring our guests there for lunch. Over the years, it became really famous among Filipinos that in a given year, 25 to 30 percent of their branch’s business is Filipino-driven.”

It was exactly this prospect that encouraged Yap to localize the concept after leaving his former company. While much of the food from the main branch were included in the menu, as well as the direct involvement of its Singaporean Chef, the Ayala Triangle branch follows a different format as far as ambience is concerned. “The look there is very different—it’s simpler and it’s a small hole-in-the-wall,” shares Yap. “Here, we had to cater the ambience to the local market. It’s an indoor evolution of the Singapore outdoor dining environment.”

Even before Yap opened the restaurant in Ayala Triangle in November last year, there was already a strong base of people who knew about the Wee Nam Kee concept, such that when it finally opened, it was pandemonium. “We were overwhelmed with the response,” recalls Yap. “When we did the business forecasts for the place, we weren’t expecting it would be that strong. We weren’t prepared for that sort of response, and there was even a time when we actually ran out of a month’s worth of forecasted inventory in two weeks’ time!”

But it was a good problem to have, admits Yap. “It took us three weeks to iron out the operational kinks, and while we still have to address issues of getting people seated faster, we’re very happy with the response because there is clamor in the market,” he shares, adding, “we are also opening our second branch in Serendra by August, so hopefully that will unburden this location. We’re hoping to reduce unserved customers—some of whom even come all the way from Dasmariñas, Cavite!”

Off the Eatin’ Path

Unlike in other modern centers of conspicuous consumption, Singapore’s real culinary delights are found in the streets. This is something restaurateur Benny Zeng knows all too well. A Singaporean native who chose to retire in the Philippines, Zeng is no stranger to arguments over the virtues and deficiencies of the different renditions of Singaporean Chicken Rice.

“To be frank, the chicken rice—if you’ve been to Singapore—is really different from the ones they make in Asian restaurants here in Manila,” shares Zeng, owner of M.D. Lim Singapore Hainanese Chicken Rice, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant tucked along Tomas Pinpin Street in Binondo. “In Singapore, a lot of places sell chicken rice and the flavors differ from one store to the next because we each have our own secret recipes.”

At M.D. Lim, Zeng brings his extensive experience as a cook in Singapore’s outdoor dining scene. All the recipes, from his bestselling chicken rice and chili crabs to the spicy sambal squid and seafood laksa, are authentic recipes designed to make visiting Singaporeans feel right at home. “If in Singapore, the Filipinos have Lucky Plaza to feel like they’re in their home country, I’m applying the same concept here for my fellow Singaporeans,” Zeng shares.

From its unassuming façade down to its modest dining area, M.D. Lim Singapore Hainanese Chicken Rice brings to life the typical hole-in-the-wall Singaporean restaurant. The price range is quite comfortable because the rent is cheap, and one can order items off the official menu; food is served without the fancy plating of high-end restaurants, highlighting instead the quality that satisfies those with discerning palates.

And while most businesses operate with profit in mind, it’s different for Zeng, whose restaurant has been in the country for two years without much effort in publicity. “For me, this started as just another way to live on and pass time—make it or break it, it didn’t really matter so much to me; but I’m glad with how business is actually doing well,” shares Zeng, adding “we even have customers coming all the way from Pangasinan and Batangas—and this is all through word of mouth. Now that I have set up this place, I have met friends who come here to eat and for conversations and beers. Life is good.”

Wee Nam Kee is located at the Ayala Triangle Gardens, Makati Avenue, Makati City. Operating hours is from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Call(2) 846-8924 for reservations.

M.D. Lim Singapore Hainanese Chicken Rice is located at 366 Tomas Pinpin St., Binondo, Manila. Open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. For reservations, call (2) 381-2878/387-8471, (0933) 332-8878 or (0922) 863-3878.

Published in the May 2, 2011 issue of the Manila Bulletin’s Business Agenda section