Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Hawker Fare in Oakland

Sophisticated Rice Bowls as Street Food
2300 Webster St. (at 23rd), Oakland
Uptown neighborhood
PH: 510.832.8896
Open lunch, Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner, Thu.–Sat., 5–9:30 p.m. Closed Sunday
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

The culinary scene has been blooming in Oakland, and lucky for me some of it has happened right in front of me -- either in my neighborhood near Rockridge or Piedmont Avenue or around my Oakland offices in the Uptown area.

I've complained about my lunch options in the past, but now my complaint is that I'm spending too much for lunch with all these fancy sit-down places. One of the latest openings garnering a lot of attention and long lines is Hawker Fare.

It's no wonder this Southeast Asian casual restaurant has gotten instant attention. Its owner is Chef James Syhabout, the homegrown boy who created the sublime Commis restaurant in Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. While Commis is a Michelin-star establishment with innovative fine-dining creations, Hawker Fare is Syhabout's homage to the street food of the Southeast Asian region.

Everyone's also probably heard the story of how his new casual restaurant is in the same spot that was once the Thai restaurant of his mom. The torch has officially been passed.

Because Hawker Fare is right near my office, I've visited it a few times for lunch and then recently for dinner after it extended its hours at the end of the week. In the beginning, there were a lot of people checking out the place, with crowds hovering outside. But thankfully, the wait isn't very long for one person because of the many two-tops, and because most people are just ordering one course from the simple menu, so they don't take that long to eat.

Even as some of the early opening crowds have died down, it's still packed, especially on a Friday night. And with a no reservations policy, it's smart to get there early.

The restaurant has a simple decor, but plays up the street vibe with a huge graffiti mural along one wall. Just for fun, there's even a disco ball that sparkles at night. Most of the servers are young and friendly, but it does seem like they don't talk very much about the food. Maybe that's because the food speaks for itself.

As mentioned earlier, the menu is pretty simple with a few snack items like roasted peanuts and green papaya salad. (At dinner they sometimes have specials like mussels.) Then the rice bowls are the main offerings, which currently lists six types and one kao pak, or rice congee.

Here's what I ate over the last few visits:

I started simply with the first rice dish on the menu, called the Kao Mun Gai ($9), or poached chicken served with fresh cucumbers and herbs. This classic chicken rice dish is served with a salted mung bean sauce. I should note that the servers don't really explain how you should eat the dish with the sauce, whether the sauce is for dipping or if you should pour it all over? A bit of educating would be helpful.

Still, the chicken is amazingly tender and clean in flavors. The fresh herbs with the cucumber, makes the dish refreshing but slightly on the bland side. That's until I tried the sauce, a pungent thick sauce that was a unique Asian flavor yet undiscovered by my palate. It was a little like a combination of hoisin sauce and fish sauce. I really liked the sauce, and would definitely pour it all over the chicken to give it that oomph and bring the overall dish to life.

Side note: The chicken is cooked with some bone bits still attached, indicating the freshness of the chicken. Because some bones are attached, the meat looks a bit pink near the bone. I actually overheard some people telling their servers that they worried that the chicken was undercooked, but they were told that's how it should be prepared. I wasn't worried too much about it because it didn't look raw as much as it looked like fresh chicken meat my mom used to make for dinner.

The Lemongrass Chicken rice bowl ($9) was actually my least favorite of the rice bowls. The chicken has a yellow tint because it's marinated with tumeric. The chicken was cooked nicely and the rice is always done well, but I guess I wasn't that excited by the accompany sauce for this rice bowl. The mixture of macerated chiles with lime, garlic and fish sauce was a bit average and not transforming of the dish when mixed with the chicken.

The Tom Khem-style rice dish ($9) highlighted by three pieces of 24-hour braised pork belly was thoroughly enjoyable, from the rich fatty pork pieces with slight five-spice flavor to the pickled vegetables underneath. The sauce was a sweet soy with mustard that had an underlining kick like horseradish. All of the accompaniments in this dish to the pork belly were all designed to cut into the richness so that you didn't feel like you pigged out.

An interesting note: the kitchen at Hawker Fare is run by Chef Justin Yu, who also has worked in the kitchen of Momofuku Ssam Bar -- the New York restaurant of David Chang that's famous for its pork belly buns.

A couple of times I ordered (for the first time in my life) the Thai iced tea ($2.50), which is a deeply brewed tea served with lots of ice cubes and beautifully marbled by the pouring of sweetened condensed milk on the top. I just loved the caramel color of the tea created by the milk, and the flavor leaned more toward the sweet side. It was like drinking ice cream because of the milky flavor.

Between Hawker Fare's Thai iced tea and the Hong Kong milk tea (also made with sweetened condensed milk) that I've been drinking at Out the Door, I'm worried that I'm gaining weight from all the sugar.

During my visit for dinner, I decided to order a starter since I had more time to eat than my lunch breaks. So I tried Hawker Fare's version of the Green Papaya Salad ($6.50). The salad is not like your typical Vietnamese green papaya salad. There's the julienned strips of green papaya for crunch, but there's a pungent flavor from the som tum muddled with dried shrimp, fish sauce, tamarind and lime juice. The added string beans and cherry tomatoes created a more colorful presentation. I don't know if all the added ingredients complicated the dish. In some ways I find the brilliant nature of a green papaya salad is the clean simple flavors. This version had a slightly sweeter taste with more hints of the dried shrimp.

I forgot to mention that all the rice bowl comes with the option of adding a fried farm egg for an extra $1.50. The servers ask you if you want to add one every time you order. So finally for my dinner, when I ordered my Issan Sausage rice bowl ($9.50), I decided to top it with the egg.

The Issan sausage is a pork meatball sausage made into square patties and then served with a mixture of fresh herbs. This is the only rice bowl that wasn't served with an accompanying sauce because the sausages are glazed and grilled. The sauce comes from the light glaze. As for the egg, I don't know if I can say it really added anything to the dish.

I really loved the savory flavor of the sausage mixed with the sweetness of the glaze, making this my favorite rice bowl at Hawker Fare, I believe.

Most of the desserts are based on the soft serve ice cream from Straus Dairy, like a cone or sundae. But I'm always a sucker for affogato, which is the Italian dessert made with ice cream and espresso. I don't drink coffee, but I love coffee ice cream and affogatto is like the origins of coffee ice cream. At Hawker Fare, a big serving of the Straus Dairy soft serve is brought to your table with a tiny pour of espresso ($4).

I actually felt that the coffee was weak because it didn't seem to hold up to the strong vanilla and sweet flavor of the ice cream. I wanted more of a balance between the coffee and the ice cream.

As you can see, I've been eating well lately since Hawker Fare opened up. The early buzz was mixed because I think people expected more from Chef Syhabout, especially after eating at Commis. But Hawker Fare isn't supposed to be an extension of Commis, but more an interpretation of Syhabout's childhood favorites executed in a highly technical way to show off the ingredients. It might be a lot more than what you'd pay for rice bowls in Chinatown, but you'll leave appreciating the perfectly cooked meats with the freshness of the herbs.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (Simply Dressed Rice Bowls)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Hawker Fare on Urbanspoon


Cookie said...

All rice bowls needs to be topped with a fried egg (in my opinion)! Looks like a great place!

Carolyn Jung said...

I love Hawker Fare. Finally got a chance to try it for lunch a few days ago. I can see why you're going there so much. If that place was near me, I'd be there ALL the time. ;)

Claudine said...

Soooo jealous you get to go to lunch there so often!