During the lockdown periods and limited dining restrictions, I have not been to my favourite chilli and pepper crab place. Finally, I can dine in person at No Signboard Geylang.
No Signboard had humble beginnings in 1970s, when Mdm Ong Kim Hoi and her husband Choo Ah Kaw started a seafood hawker stall at Mattar Road Hawker Center to help raise her growing family. At one point, the next generation expanded the operation with franchisee in multiple locations. Everything was brought back down to earth, and this is the one and only location left.
In the late 1970s, Singapore-style chilli crab was traditionally prepared in a spicy tomato sauce base. But Mdm Ong decided to change the mix of ingredients. First, she created her own chilli sauce. Then she chose to cook crab in white pepper sauce because she felt black pepper was too strong and overpowered the fresh taste of live crab. And that’s when No Signboard gained a loyal following that included the very young me.
Geylang was the notorious part of Singapore with its share of brothels, underground gambling dens and gangs. But with these were a very vibrant service, entertainment and dining ecosystem that existed to support these shady activities. This Geylang location opened in 1981 and can sit over 40 tables, and it attracted its fair share of criticism – poor service, standard drop, etc. I grew up in the neighbourhood, and this was my favourite outlet.
Crispy baby sotongs 脆苏东仔
My foreign guests have told me they have never seen this dish anywhere else before they tried these in No Signboard. I was pretty sure every Upper East Coast seafood restaurant had this. Baby squids are deep fried and then stir-fried with a sweet and spicy sauce and then sprinkled with sesame seeds. A great snack to start dinner as you drink beer and wait for the chilli crabs.
Steamed bamboo clams with mung bean noodles and minced garlic 蒜蓉粉丝蒸竹笙
Each of our large bamboo clams steamed with mung bean noodle (which we can locally as tung hoon) and golden-brown bits of fried garlic was flawlessly executed, and the accompanying dip of chilli, fresh herbs and raw garlic that reminded me of Thai chilli sauce was good but I usually just eat it as the sweetness of the clams was additive enough.
Sambal kangkong 马来风光
I do not know why this dish is always served so early in the sequence of dishes. Stir-fried sambal kangkong has a very pretty Chinese name – call the “Malaya Scenery”. The simple dish is made with a belachan sambal, minced dried shrimps and kangkong. Kangkong is considered a weed in Western countries, so this dish is so Asian. Even though they looked wilted but they were still crunchy, I love the sambal used which was heady, fragrant and has that beautiful umami from belachan (fermented prawn paste).
Signature No Signboard chilled lobster salad 澳洲刺龙冷盘
During the Hungry Ghost Festival celebrated in Singapore during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, this was the typical cold appetiser platter that you would be served in those banquets along the streets. Most of the items were deep fried, and then there’s the chilled prawn with mayonnaise and cocktail fruit salad. They have upgraded the prawns with Australian rock lobsters. Yummy and nostalgic.
Champagne Chicken 香槟鸡
Another old-school tzechar favourite was the Champagne Chicken 香槟鸡. It is essentially fried chicken chop with a lemon sauce, and is a favourite among newbies to local Chinese cuisine. The bright sauce looked radioactive, but the lemony scent peaked up the fried chicken and a light sugar syrup provided the balancing sweetness.
Mee goreng 马来炒面
I had to get a serving of the mee goreng as I loved how old-school their style of fried yellow mee tasted. It was still cooked tomato ketchup-sweet (must be Maggi), spicy and spiked with pieces of seafood and tau kwa. (cue music) All those sweet memories came back clearly to me, it can even make me cry just like before… it’s yesterday once more.
Squid paste stuffed in dough fritters 炸苏东油条
Another old-school dish where dough fritters are stuffed with minced squid paste and then deep fried. I ordered it because I had not tried this for quite some time and wanted to get that feeling back again.
Deep fried Soonhock (marble goby) fish 油浸笋壳鱼
I would never cook this fish at home because of the amount of oil needed to deep fry the marble goby. But when done right (crispy outside, fresh and tender inside), this is my favourite fish dish.
They nailed the fish alright. It was a good marble goby without the musky taste of farming them in closed ponds. Marble gobies are not active fish so farmed version can get lohgor (tough fish meat), but it wasn’t tonight. But the sauce they screwed up big time. They had made a sticky sauce using the slight sweet soy sauce thickened with cornstarch. Absolute fail.
Signature chilli crab 招牌辣椒螃蟹
There’s the almost century old argument on who invented the Singapore-style chilli crab. But No Signboard was a latecomer in the chilli crab game, and they didn’t have the pedigree of the Upper East Coast seafood strip as well. However the late boomer became one of the most important players that promoted this national dish across the world.
What made them stand apart from the rest of the seafood restaurants was the sauce that was not too tomatoey. It has a fragrant taste of lemongrass, curry leaves, laksa leaves and other spices that the family has guided for three generations. It has been copied but never surpassed. Use those sweet deep fried mantou to mop up the sauce, and 12 was never enough.
White pepper crab 白胡椒螃蟹
White pepper crab is undisputedly No Signboard’s best crab dish that they can claim to be their own invention. When I tried the HolyCrab version of the white pepper crab, I shook my head in disbelief the amount of sauce. This is how it should be done, don’t change the recipe. With crushed white pepper (which used to be from Sarawak), the gravy clung onto the huge male Sri Lankan crabs with the potent peppery taste that I have known since a kid.
Teochew yam (taro) paste with pumpkin and ginkgo nuts 金瓜白果芋泥
And finally the dessert. It took some persuasion for the guests to say they would try it, but when it was served, everyone loved it. I knew it was good because of past visited, and as a Teochew I have a very high standard for the yam paste. Except for the oil used to seal the yam paste with (it was traditionally made with lard), this was a very delicious and creamy yam paste.
This location has been opened since 1981, and I have been patronising this place for over 40 years. The same auntie at the counter has been there since the beginning. It was one of the most expensive chilli crab in Singapore, but it didn’t matter – it was so good.
I am so glad that No Signboard has endured the harsh realities that faced many other F&B favourites that did not make it through the Covid-19 pandemic. There are limited tables in the air-condition comfort of the VIP room (but no extra charges) so remember to book your table early. Limited parking on premise but they do have valet parking service. Else you have to try your luck around the different lorongs around there to look for the precious parking lot.
No Signboard Seafood @ Geylang
414 Geylang Road Singapore 389392
Tel : +65 6842 3415
Visited in Jul 2022