Find the article at OC WEEKLY
As with many of its food-truck contemporaries, Chomp Chomp Nation, OC’s first and only Singaporean food truck, has gone brick-and-mortar. Well, sort of; it’s actually gone “food court.” It now operates as a permanent counter next to other vendors inside the Wholesome Choice in Anaheim Hills.
When you find it, past the nuts and across the aisle from the Persian cookies, you’ll meet Alex, the man Chomp Chomp has installed as its cook and ambassador. Alex is a stocky gent with a thick mustache and burly arms, and he will single-handedly make everything you want to eat here.
I watched him get started on my order of seven dishes without blinking. He grabbed skewers of shrimp to sear on his heated flattop, dropped a few hot wings into the basket of a deep fryer, and broke down a block of compressed rice cake into tinier blocks. “Your order will take about eight minutes,” he said, smiling as he moved about his small kitchen space in a whirlwind of hands, tongs and spatulas.
Seven minutes later, I returned and noticed he was flipping what resembled some sort of grilled cheese on his griddle. “I’m making our toasted s’mores dessert for you,” he winked. “You’re going to like it!”
I thanked him for his generosity. Then I stood in the supermarket checkout line. At home, I found Alex was right about the s’mores. I loved it–even if it didn’t involve marshmallows or Graham crackers. It’s actually a sandwich–a Nutella and kaya coconut jam sandwich on brioche bread, drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and finished with a dollop of whipped cream. If you’re wondering what that kaya part was about, it’s the distinctly Malay coconut cream spread Singaporeans put on toast and eat as breakfast. Chomp Chomp has made it sweeter, pairing it with the chocolate-hazelnut spread and naming the dessert after the campfire staple because . . . well, it does kind of taste like s’mores.
Repackaging Singaporean dishes into American molds has always been Chomp Chomp’s modus operandi. Mostly, it does this with sandwiches. There are ones stuffed with iconic Singaporean flavors such as chili crab and beef rendang–things no old-school pernakan nonya would dare put between a burger bun. Rendang, in particular–the soulful, stick-to-your-ribs slow-braised beef dish aromatic of galangal, coconut cream, pandan leaf and candlenuts–is something you’re supposed to eat with rice. But what does a Singaporean food court vendor in a Persian supermarket located in a majority Mexican area without a discernable Southeast Asian customer base do to sell it? Repurpose it in the guise of a sloppy Joe, of course.
As for the chili crab–the messy, drowned-in-spicy-gravy dish every guidebook and Travel Channel host would urge you to try if you’re ever in Singapore–Chomp Chomp offers it two ways: as a whole deep fried soft shell or a fat crab cake. Both are tucked into shiny burger buns and dolloped with the same spicy chili crab sauce that would cover your fingers in orange-tinted gunk if you were eating the original dish. Though the crab cake may be the better rendition–exploding with more meat than what you might actually get from prying it out of a real crab in the real dish–there’s just something so primal and satisfying in the act of eating an entire freshly fried soft-shell crab under a bun, crispy appendages and all.
If you want your Singaporean flavors in a red-meat burger, Alex sizzles a good, Indian-inflected ground lamb patty that he adorns with mint and a slather of a curried yogurt raita. There are also two vegetarian burger options: a falafel with more of that curry raita and a grilled tofu with peanut sauce.
For the unadulterated Singaporean dishes, look at the menu’s “Hawker” section. There are huge fried prawns here, rolled as though stogies inside a woven matrix of tapioca noodles that falls into a shower of crispy crumbles when bitten. And there are those fried wings, deep mahogany in color even before they’re shellacked in a cherry-lime-pineapple barbecue glaze–a sauce that makes them taste as though they’re the missing link between sweet-and-sour chicken and char-siu pork.
Most important, you find the chicken satays on this side, served traditionally with cubes of compressed rice cake called lontong. Eaten together, the combo is as essential to Malay and Indonesian cuisine as hot dogs and buns are to baseball games. But the satay and lontong would be nothing if its spicy peanut sauce weren’t up to snuff–and Chomp Chomp’s is. It’s so spot-on, in fact, I had to ask Alex on my second trip if he’s from Singapore. “No, I’m from Mexico,” he said with a grin. Well, of course he is.
Chomp Chomp Nation at Wholesome Foods, 5755 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (949) 637-1688; chompchompnation.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$30, food only. No alcohol.