El Paso, TX
I should start out by saying that I have been coming to Singapore at least since the 1990s, and I do not remember if I came before that time (or if they were even open then). Just the fact that it is a Thai restaurant in a city that for most of this time has had only one or two choices for this cuisine is a reason I have enjoyed it. Another feature that really works for me is the fact that they have lunch specials at a good price. The selection of items for the lunch special is not as extensive as it used to be, but I still like to come here; particularly because of their excellent soup that is only served at lunch (and comes free with all the lunch specials).
I have written several reviews of Singapore Cafe on my various web sites (Steve’s Gastronomic Home Page, OK Gourmet, and now Steve’s Food Blog). Since the early 2000s when I started the Gastronomic Home Page I have felt the need to caution readers about the food here versus other restaurants that I feel are more authentic, and the fact that there are some dishes here that I like quite a bit more than others. The rating I have given the restaurant has never felt very satisfactory to me because it has never really reflected how much I enjoy the restaurant personally, but at the same time several dishes here have been disappointing to me and sometimes I feel as if I am rating it too high. Thus I would just say to consider each dish individually because there are some very good ones.
I think the real strengths of Singapore Café are its emphasis on fresh ingredients, healthy eating, and a home cooking style of food. I call it “Thai fusion” because many of the best dishes are ones created by Becky, the owner and chef, rather than the traditional Thai dishes that are on the menu. Even the name of the restaurant implies that she borrows recipes from Singapore, Malaysia, and surrounding countries.
During the 1990s I came here largely to get vegetarian meals that I thought tasted like “real food.” Now I would say that many dishes taste better with meat, or at least with fish sauce. I still like the tofu option on many of the dishes, though. True vegetarians have always flocked to Singapore knowing that any dietary request made here will be honored, and that it will be made as flavorful as possible. Their ability to customize you food sets them apart from quite a few other restaurants (even Asian ones).
Patrons are not supplied a tray of Thai style condiments at the table, and I would say that you might need to know what you are doing when it comes to customizing the food. I know, for instance, that I always have to ask for more lime than the one slice they give you with the pad thai. The good news, though, is that they are never reluctant to give me what I request.
At about the end of 2018 Singapore moved to its new location at 3233 N. Mesa (the restaurant fronts on Kern Drive just north of the UTEP campus). To me it looks smaller than the old restaurant but it is very comfortable. They still have lunch specials. The list of items is smaller than before for the lunch specials, but I think the dinner menu is about the same. The restaurant stays open past 2:00 p.m. but that is when they stop serving the lunch specials.
Over the years one of the entrées I have enjoyed very much at Singapore Café has been Veggie Ginger Tofu, although I would not rate it the same as many of the ginger dishes served in the Seattle area and other cities. The one here includes tofu, ginger, mushrooms, peanuts, and snow peas as the primary ingredients, set on a bed of lettuce that I only consume if the rest of the plate is not sufficiently filling. I find the dish to be “sickly sweet” and off balance in flavor, but still the vegetables and tofu are of good quality and this is something I do not mind ordering. It is much better with fish sauce, which does not come in the vegetarian version, but can be requested.
Yu Sang Broccoli is generally good in its vegetarian version, but can also be ordered with meat. Becky describes this as a “Chinese ex-patriot” dish, and it probably came from the large Chinese population in Thailand that mixed their own recipes with the local ingredients. To me this is one of the few dishes at Singapore Café that does not taste too sweet or “Americanized;” rather it has a good balance of flavors. It is surprisingly spicy, though, considering the lack of spice found in many of the other dishes.
Curry dishes are the ones that have been the most disappointing to me. They do not seem to have the rich and full flavors I have experienced elsewhere, and in this case I would like them to be more “authentic” (as I have experienced them in other restaurants).
A very good vegetarian choice is the Veggie Mi Goreng, consisting of noodles with tofu and vegetables. I think this is usually considered to be a Malaysian dish, and over the years has been one of my favorites at Singapore Café. It is not one of the dishes that taste “sweet,” although it seems to have a sweet and sour contrast done in a traditional Asian way.
Several soups are served as entrées, but many of them are not as satisfying to me as at other Thai restaurants. The Tom Kha Gai (with coconut), however, has frequently been better than at many other places.
Tom Yum is a spicy soup with pineapple and tomato, flavored with lemongrass. This is similar to Vietnamese style sweet and sour soup, but is rather different from the versions of tom yum I have found at other Thai restaurants. I liked the chicken version better than the one with shrimp, even though the opposite is true with some other dishes.
Some of the best dishes at Singapore have been specials that are not always available including Mango Tofu that may not be great when compared to Thai food available in other cities, but is one of the more delicious and healthy dishes available in El Paso. This is an example of the food at Singapore that may not be the best that can be found anywhere, but is certainly enjoyable (or at least I have found it to be so).
The Green Tea Chicken started out as a special but was added to the menu in 2005. This is a spicy dish served in a bowl on top of rice with broccoli and other vegetables. When Becky served it as a special I liked it so much I made it a point to tell her, and perhaps this was one of the reasons it was added to the menu (OK, maybe this wasn’t the reason). There is also a tofu version but I think the chicken has a better flavor.
Lunch specials come with a delicious, slightly tomato flavored soup that I think is better than the soups found at just about any Chinese restaurant in the city. The crispy noodles that come with it are excellent, and even if the choices for luncheon specials is limited the soup is always good. I am sure this is a big factor for the restaurant’s popularity at lunch time.
The lunch menu comes with about six choices, and besides the soup includes lumpia. The lumpia, a small fried spring roll, has meat inside, and most of the menu items are meat dishes. Two of the lunch specials can be made vegetarian (pad thai and kao pad), but if you order it vegetarian they do not bring the lumpia unless you ask for it. I will admit to having ordered pad thai quite a few times not because I was craving it, but because I wanted the soup that comes with the lunch specials (and the lumpia is good also).
Pad Thai has been my favorite dish from the lunch menu, but I cannot say it is the best because I have not tried all the others. I do think, though, that the pad thai at Singapore Café is better than average in the universe of American Thai restaurants. This is a white to slightly brown colored dish that I was told is made with vinegar and soy sauce. The regular (non-vegetarian) version is also made with fish sauce (nam pla), and personally I think it needs the fish sauce to have the full flavor that it should. Some restaurants use tamarind sauce that turns the noodles a red color, but Becky does not (perhaps this is why I like Singapore’s version better than others). Bean sprouts provide substance but not much flavor, and are traditionally included in the dish. Crushed peanuts are spread on top, and fresh limes and chiles are provided on the side for extra flavor. While many dishes at Singapore Café seem to be too sweet, the pad thai is not. Scrambled eggs are mixed in, and it is topped off with shrimp and chicken. The shrimp and chicken are both good, and some tofu is included as well.
In A Nutshell
One of Singapore’s main claims to fame (and to my heart) is that it is one of the few vegetarian friendly restaurants in El Paso, and offers dishes that actually have some flavor at times when I do not want to eat meat. It is also noteworthy for the specials and other dishes that are not served in any other restaurant. Most of my favorite dishes at Singapore Café are Malaysian rather than Thai, but calling the restaurant “Thai fusion” probably works as well as any description I can think of. In any case, I know I can call it “delicious.”
Hours: Closed Sun., Closed Mon. evening, Closed Tue. evening
Smoking: No smoking
Most Recent Visit: Feb. 5, 2021
Number of Visits: 10+
Best Items: Soup Served with Lunch Specials, Pad Thai