SINGAPORE — The worst thing I’ve read about Ajumma’s is on Facebook when an anonymous user commented on a post about the opening of their Bukit Panjang Plaza outfit and said that what Ajumma’s serve is just ‘microwave food’. Of course, such proclamations prove itself worthless and pointless when one tries to get a seat at their Funan branch during dinner where the queue snakes and could take at least thirty minutes of patient waiting. I would know; I was one of the few.
Curiosity turned into sparkling clarity when I managed to get a spot one evening, after a brief queue of twenty minutes, as part of my research for my interview piece with 28-year-old CEO and founder, Dominic Tan.
There’s a reason why the faithful descend this part of town for a slice of Korea especially so in a country filled to the brim with much too much Korean food joints that often masquerade as a place to clink soju till closing or at least till our hardworking Safe Distancing Ambassadors manifest.
Unlike other Korean establishments along the streets of Telok Ayer peddling aspirations of authenticity, Ajumma’s stand out amongst the crowd of cookie-cutter bulgogi’s to serve food that is curated, finessed, and, I’m glad to report, nowhere as dross as the food court varietals of Saba-minced-chicken-kimchi bento box—seriously, stop with that already.
If the most recently shuttered Ajumma’s at Cathay was where Dominic’s dream of Korean food domination started, and the Funan outfit is a calculated foray into a locale with stiff F&B competition, then this Bukit Panjang Plaza outlet is what grown-up and sophisticated Ajumma’s would look.
And what a breath of fresh air Ajumma’s bring into this hyper-neighbourhood mall at Jelebu Road. While aesthetically different, the DNA of what made Ajumma’s a runaway success can be seen not in its mise en scene, but in its menu, featuring the same familiar favourites as that in its Funan branch, never straying too far from the formula of culinary accomplishments.
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There is, of course, Ajumma’s Signature Beef Kalbi (S$14.90) that has since become synonymous with its name, featuring thick slices of USDA Prime beef, slathered with an in-house marinade and tossed (vigorously and swiftly, I would imagine) in a wok for a lingering smokey flavour.
Like everything else here, it is best enjoyed while hot although it doesn’t degrade in quality even when it’s been sitting out for five minutes waiting to be photographed. It’s a job hazard, I know. It’s beautifully tender and tastes like the kind of thing you eat at the roadside during winter, huddled together for warmth—just you and beef.
Elsewhere in the meat menu, there’s a fresh new face making its debut in this mall. The Spicy Pork and Charred Cabbage (S$10.90), like it’s beef buddy, is immaculately seasoned and well-tossed as if there’s an actual Ajumma in the kitchen slaving away behind a wok. It’s red, it’s fiery, but it’s not too spicy to make the whole dish intolerable.
I raved to my dining partner about the pockets of fats in this stir fry, which is quite thrilling, especially for a greedy boy such as myself. A word of warning, though. If you let it sit too long, oil starts seeping out no thanks to the fatty pork parts. If this annoys you or makes you duly guilty, I suggest you simply look away. Life is just easier like that.
If you find yourself contemplating a meal here alone, you can’t go wrong with the one-dish meal of Kimchi Fried Rice (S$12.90) with its charred kimchi, plump prawns, seaweed, and a sunny side up. The rice here is laden with flavours both sour and sweet and is laboriously wet from the magic of charred kimchi. If you happen to be with a partner (dining, life, or otherwise), get the Seafood Pancake (S$13.90) as well. Nothing beats a well-engineered round of boldly seasoned eggs, squid, and prawns for sharing.
Speaking of eggs, I was cajoled into ordering the Fluffy Egg (S$5.90); apparently, a crowd’s favourite since almost every table has one. It comes served in a hot-to-the-touch bowl that brims at the edges with the broth it’s cooked. A superhuman tongue should have this as soon as humanly possible—there’s just something about fluffy eggs that truly is chicken soup for the soul.
But even if you wait, the broth gets absorbed into the eggs quite readily. If that’s your kind of thing, then you do you, boo. I prefer my fluffy eggs still fluffy and slightly juicy.
The Crab & Seafood Jjampong (S$17.90) would serve a party of four very well. This, with the egg, seafood pancake, and a round of rice makes for a perfect sharing meal that would satiate. Here, the jjampong comes with springy noodles that don’t stay springy for long, which is not exactly a bad thing.
I mean, something needs to take in all that joyous broth, am I right? Plus there are crabs in the huge serving bowl which is the most finicky thing to eat but otherwise, adds fierce overtones of umami the longer it sits.
I seldom talk about drinks in my reviews, not for lack of effort, but because I usually only drink water when I’m reviewing a place. This palate needs to stash kuh-lean, honey. But for Ajumma’s I shall depart from principles and persuade you to please either get the Plime Fizz or the Omija Fizz (both S$5.90).
It makes for a great cleanser to these overtures of bold and fearsome flavours. The former is my favourite, made with Maesil—a Korean plum—lime, and sparkling water. The latter is steeped with Omija—five-flavours magnolia berry of sour, sweet, bitter, pungent, salty taste—blueberries, mint, and sparkling water.
Another new item on the menu is the Chapssal Donut with Red Bean (S$7.90), a popular Korean sweet snack that's a hybrid of a traditional soft Korean rice cake and a deep-fried doughnut. At its centre, is a sweet red bean paste that pairs well with Vanilla ice cream served with the Ajumma’s iteration.
It’s part savoury, part sweet, and all light and pillowy. You must leave room for this, especially if it’s the only dessert you’re having this whole week. Though, are you really living if you have desserts but once a week? Live a little, Lucy. Live a little.
Of course, when it comes to Korean fare, the diner in Singapore wouldn't be hard-pressed for choice. It's not a bad thing, though I do blame this rampant proliferation on the dreaded G-word: globalisation. Oh, and the N-word, Netflix, where there's enough Korean drama to fuel the imagination of a country's populace for the entirety of a circuit breaker.
But if you fancy yourself an aficionado of all things Korean, you really ought to keep Ajumma's in your Rolodex of restaurants. If their unending queues are any indication, Ajumma’s truly is the Korean gift that keeps on giving and giving.
Website | 1 Jelebu Road, 03-10A Bukit Panjang Plaza, S677743
Daily: 11.30 am–9.30 pm
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