I love it when a plan comes together.
— John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, The A-Team
Some restaurants are easier to ‘get’ than others, and generally I’ve found that to be a good thing. If a customer doesn’t know what’s going on as they walk in, it’s possible (not certain, though) that a restaurant doesn’t know what it’s about either. But when you stick to a plan, the plan shines through.
Park Bench Deli, having ended its up-popping days and settled down, knows very well what it’s doing, and who it caters to. I can imagine the mission briefing, as it were. Every weekday at lunchtime, the working crowd descends from the surrounding towers into Telok Ayer’s oasis of shophouses, a flood of lunch money as regular as the tides. Park Bench Deli is here to catch that tide and serve them good, portable food, in the form of sandwiches. It’s the American deli plan, a simple, elegant plan.
Mind you, a restaurant that sticks to a plan can be a little infuriating. They don’t open on weekends, and on weekdays they close at 3 – taking a page, no doubt, from neighbouring Amoy Street Hawker Centre. I mean, come on! Then again, I’m not in the intended audience. A leisurely lunch that’s not constrained by the jackboot of office schedules is not really in the plan either; what seating there is is pushed to the edges of the dining area, leaving more room for people to queue. The menu is a big black board with a small number of options. You place the order here, pick the order up there, and have a nice day.
Not that the decor is perfunctory. Black and white tiles, bright yellow lighting and a wood-and-blue theme make Park Bench Deli look both spacious and warm; behind the counter is a kitchen Nigella would approve, centred around a vast worktop. Natural light pours in from a skylight over the kitchen; music is perky, if a little loud. It’s a pleasing space, presided over by known quantities – Ming Tan from Lolla, Andrei Soen from Cajun Kings. I will note that Andrei earned his culinary chops in California; this may explain the wonder I’m about to show you.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – there isn’t enough Mexican food in Singapore, in all its variety and deep history. Cochinita pibil is a mark of Mexican cuisine’s antiquity, a Mayan dish from the southeast and the simplest of ideas – put pork in a strongly flavoured marinade, wrap it in a banana leaf and roast it for hours and hours. Seeing the name on the menu was enough to make up my mind.
On opening the sandwich, I was apprehensive at first; the mass of pork in the slightly hollowed loaf didn’t seem to have the characteristic hue, looking rather more like bog standard pulled pork. But then the smell reached me – annatto, allspice, a slight tang from vinegar or citrus – and I was assured. It turns out the amber-coloured juices have soaked into the loaf, enriching it without turning it soggy.
The meat is tender and saturated with juices, its flavour vast and rounded; the companions provide appropriate accents – light but creamy guacamole, tangy and piquant jabs of jalapenos and pickled red onions, crumbly, salty Cotija cheese. Everything is as it should be, in a way you’d expect from someone who has first-hand knowledge of what to do with pibil.
The chicken in the buttermilk chicken sandwich, meanwhile, uses a simple batter; thin and crunchy, it flirts with becoming charred, while the thigh meat within retains its succulence and the homely buttermilk aroma. Again, the companions are chosen to fit the chicken’s own cultural roots, this time the American South – Russian dressing, tight and mildly spicy; and a finely shredded slaw with corn, creamy and crisp, livened up with the slight pungency of coriander stems.
Park Bench Deli’s bread, made in house, is an enthusiastic partner in crime to everything inside it, its crust dark caramel brown and gleaming as if burnished. Wrapped around pibil, it adds crunch to the juicy pork; the drier chicken shows up its crumb, stretchy and pillowy. It makes for crumbly, messy eating, which for sandwiches is the best kind. As an experiment, I kept a half of both sandwiches for tea; the bread is a little tougher, but has also gained flavour from holding in the rest of the ensemble as they mingle and steep. Portable this thing definitely is.
Just because a restaurant follows a plan doesn’t mean the product will always reach its ambition. But at Park Bench Deli it definitely does; the plan comes together beautifully. The operation has American vibes in the best way – a little boisterous with the music, a little relaxed, yet intense about its work and assured about the quality of that work.
They are right to be assured; their sandwiches are really on another level. And the crowd has rewarded them for it, packing the place every lunch hour. Is it worth taking the risk to slip out early and beat the rush for their sandwiches? Absolutely. Just don’t say I gave you the idea.
Update: The guys at Park Bench Deli have extended their operating hours, and will be open from 9am – 10pm. Can’t wait to feel the vibes I bet they’ll have in the evenings. (Also to eat the sandwiches. It’d be daft to just stand around ‘feeling the vibe’.)
Park Bench Deli
179 Telok Ayer Street
Hours: Weekdays, 9am – 10pm