You know you’ve reached the HQ of a multi-outlet vegetarian empire when you get to a food court and it’s nearly completely colonised by just one eatery. Such is the case with Kwan Inn Vegetarian Food in Geylang, anchor tenant of the Kim San Leng Food Centre and parent of the smaller (and noticeably substandard) Queen Street branch. Kwan Inn is a pillar of Geylang’s vegetarian enclave – the stretch of eateries on or off Sims Avenue that is punctuated by Aljunied and Paya Lebar Roads. Included in the enclave are such venerable names as the former Loving Heart, Yes Natural Vegetarian, East Highland Bakery and, of course, Kwan Inn. And go a bit further down the road and you’ll get to VeganBurg. Talk about spoilt for choice – being in this area makes vegetarianism feel sort of mainstream.
Kwan Inn’s certainly has all the trappings of a heavyweight vegetarian eatery. Apart from its huge frontage, it has an all-bases-covered menu of Chinese dishes and set meals, uniform-clad servers, and one of those food collection systems where you are given a little black disc that start beeping and vibrating when your food is ready for collection. Impressive. The food court itself is clean and cold – think harsh strip lighting, energetic fans and brutally scrubbed surfaces. It’s a slick operation that relies on its size and efficiency to make up for the relative lack of charm. But enough on the atmospherics, what about the grub?
The monkey head mushrooms (or “chicken cubes” according to the menu) with Sichuan sauce (SGD 8.00) smelt good, looked great and tasted wonderful. Seriously, this dish was the bee’s arms, toes and knees combined into one. Silky and thick sauce that was predominantly smokey, but also had hints of sweetness, pepperiness and spiciness as well. The monkey head mushrooms had a delightful crunch to them, and there were enough to satisfy even the greediest of guts. The backing singers were equally good – celery, red and green peppers, dried red chilli and cashew nuts. This was the smallest sized portion, but i’ll be coming back for the super-sized serving (SGD 16.00) to demolish by myself. Yes, it’s that good.
Au contraire, the ma po tofu (SGD 8.00) was generous in size, and size alone. The sauce was thin and watery, and the spiciness was undermined by the fistful of salt that had apparently been added. What disappointed me most, however, was the evident carelessness in preparing and presenting the tofu. The chunks were impractically large, clumsily cut, and easily disintegrated the with the gentlest of prods with a chopstick. Before long, the dish resembled something like baby food, which had to be hoovered up using a spoon. Not nice, at all.
Perhaps unsurprising given its size and reputation, Kwan Inn struggles with consistency. The highs are high and the lows are low – it’s a balancing act that invariably results in mediocrity. Nonetheless I would still like to go back – to eat more monkey heads, and to find a few more dishes that are worth getting excited about. There are more, I can feel it in my bones.
Kwan Inn Vegetarian Food
Block 134, Geylang East Avenue 1, #01-229, Kim San Leng Food Centre
Open 07:00-22:00 daily; CLOSED on alternate Mondays