Ayer Rajah Food Centre houses quite a number of popular Indian-Muslim stalls, each serving delectable dishes in their own right. El Hassan, in particular, has a selection you don’t see every day – both Western and Mediterranean.
The stall has been the focal point of my numerous trips to West Coast solely for the kebab that never misses.
The man behind it, 57-year-old Hassan Bengen, has had quite a few culinary exploits even back in his home country of Morocco. Over the 15 years of running El Hassan, he’s opened another kebab stall at Ang Mo Kio, a massive branch at a canteen in NTU, and a restaurant in Morocco. Sadly, his Singaporean ventures, save for El Hassan, have shuttered due to rising rent and the lockdown period.
You might be wondering why he hasn’t gone back home; it’s simple, really, Hassan’s completely infatuated with our tiny island, down to the weather. Perhaps that explains why he’s all smiles.
What I tried at El Hassan
Unfortunately, the exciting Indian and Mediterranean dishes like kofta and mandi rice were unavailable on the day I was there. Hassan explained that he has tentatively restricted the menu as his ailing wife hasn’t been well enough to help at the stall.
I went with my usual Chicken Kebab (S$5), this time adding cheese sauce (S$0.50). Hassan made it absolutely clear that these were specifically Shawarma, a type of kebab (doner).
Each bite was met with an initial turgid resistance from meat pressing against the flatbread’s soft skin, which then caved to the chicken’s well-seasoned profile of spices – tangy and faintly prickly. Unlike the meat at most pasar malam kebab stands, the chicken was juicy and flavourful enough to make headway without the sauces. At some points, the sauce did help break up chewier chunks.
If there was anything to complain about, it was that the sauces got a bit much; I could do without cheese next time. For small eaters, it might actually be too filling. Don’t let the size fool you as that kebab/shawarma is dense.
Chicken Panini (S$5) was next, with cheese (S$0.50) as well. This sandwich needed the sauce-to-filling ratio of the shawarma/kebab, but did not have it. While the grilled texture of the bread went great with the chicken, it got dry quickly without adequate sauce. Otherwise, it’s mostly the same affair as the shawarma/kebab except with a more substantial variety of bread.
The Mee Mushroom Creamy (S$5) threw us for a loop. There was no pasta, it was egg noodles! (Sure, both use eggs but it isn’t just a matter of ingredients.) Topped with a heap of shallots, it was a pretty big bowl for the price tag.
The sheer weight of the chicken, bordering on colossal for a drumstick, called for a cautious lift from its creamy stage. We almost glossed over its golden skin had it not been for the shallots that had kept its surface dry.
My friend was quick to nod in approval after the first bite. The meat wasn’t all that tender but had enough rigidity that we could peel off the skin with decent force from a spoon. The decently crispy exterior hugging the moderately tough chicken made for a satisfying mix of textures.
Against all expectations, the mushroom soup was rather light. It looked creamy and had the expected viscosity, but there was nary a scent wafting from its constituent garlic, onions and, importantly, mushrooms. I had to take a full swig to detect some fragrance.
The alkaline taste of the egg noodles wasn’t as potent so there might be some merit to actually using them apart from infusing a semblance of local flavour. In all, I quite agree with the use of mee here, but that has to do with my egg noodle bias. Shame the mushroom soup lacked the milky aroma.
We unanimously agreed Chicken Kebab Fries (S$6.50) were the only appropriate side dish. You know what you’re getting here – the same flavourful shredded chicken on top of a generous helping of fries, much like the overloaded animal-style renditions of our American brethren.
Delightful crunchy fries paired with finely shredded chicken coated in multiple passes of sauce drizzles, it was every part as indulgent (and messy) as it looked. If you’re ordering this, drop the calorie and macro-counting.
Hassan was clearly dejected that we weren’t able to try the semolina soup along with the other Mediterranean dishes, but we promised to be back once his wife got back on her feet.
Outside of the dishes we unfortunately not able to taste, the appeal here is undoubtedly in affordability and portion size. Any of these dishes could easily take any small eater out with a debilitating food coma.
I’ll inevitably be back to have more of those affordable kebabs from this jolly Moroccan hawker and, eventually, the long-awaited kofta and mandi rice.
Expected damage: S$5 – S$11
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