On reflection, there was a period in my youth when Bukit Panjang actually figured quite prominently. I used to take piano lessons there, and when Bukit Panjang Plaza was still new, it was where I went for BBQ pork ribs. (Cafe Cartel doesn’t even exist anymore, I don’t think.)
But I haven’t been here for a decade, and so – after a Sunday afternoon stroll in Choa Chu Kang – Dad and I decide to head down. We try the Hillion first, but think better of braving those crowds and retreat to BPP, and to Ju Hao. A nice, grounded choice – it’s a lamian/xiao long bao joint. We know exactly what we’re in for.
In terms of looks, Ju Hao more resembles a food court than other similar chains. Not for here the wood panels and the glare of yellow spotlights. But I find it’s a nice return to what lamian and dumplings are – mass market stomach-fillers that just happen to have ascended the market. It also fits with their own hawker fare origins in the former Lavender Food Square.
We will have the dumplings, of course, but before that we get a shrimp pancake – a wispy frill of tofu skin around fish paste and shrimps. It’s a well-timed dish, with its filling still spongy and moist, the shrimp sweet and crunchy. As a starter it is a substantial portion too, and thickly filled.
XLB comes looking large and plump, the skin sagging with broth. Its juices are lighter, without the heft or richness of other chains, but that allows the sweetness of the meat to be more prominent. As for the meat itself, a small, tender ball, it is succulent – but of course it is, being soaked in its own broth.
Less successful, though, is the zhajiangmian. In fact I don’t remember much of it, which is part of the problem; the gloop, which holds the main flavour, is just rather underpowered and flat. It cries out for a good dose of vinegar and chilli oil just to provide interest, and thankfully the chilli oil is good, its spice boosted by the char from hot oil.
It can be easy to review a restaurant with an established concept, because all that matters is the execution. And in Ju Hao, well… I don’t think I can say much more than that it suffices. But you know, maybe that’s the point. We’ve become a little used to the idea, I think, that lamian and XLB are delicacies, where you fork over large sums of money so they can pack the dumpling filling with cheese, truffle or other monstrosities.
If you want that, good for you. Me, I think a return to slightly more austere roots is good too. I’ll happily go back – albeit to try another sort of noodles.
Ju Hao 聚豪小籠包
1 Jelebu Road
Bukit Panjang Plaza, #03-10A
Hours: Different for different locations; consult Facebook