Bowled Over by Hawker’s Fare in Oakland

Pork belly, cooked low and slow for 24 hours, with rice and a fried egg.

You gotta love a chef who opens a restaurant in the exact same spot in Oakland that his mother once dished up Thai specialties when it was her own establishment.

And you have to smile at a chef who wants to uphold the tradition of his mother’s casual cooking, but update it with modern techniques and flair while keeping the prices wallet-friendly.

That’s just what Chef-Proprietor James Syhabout has done at Hawker Fare, which opened earlier this summer in the Uptown district.

Syhabout, who also owns the more refined, Michelin-starred Commis in Oakland, has put in charge here none other than Justin Yu, who knows a thing or two about elevating Asian street food from his days at Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York.

Recently, my husband and I enjoyed a weekday lunch here on our own dime.

Lines out the door to get inside are the norm here. But we lucked out on a Monday, timing it so that we got a table without a wait.

James Syhabout's Hawker Fare opened in May.

The loud, fun decor.

If Hawker Fare were an ensemble, it would be faded jeans with holes in the knees, paired with Vans skateboard shoes and a screaming, neon-green hoodie. It’s casual with street attitude. Just take a look at the wall emblazoned with in-your-face graffiti letters, as well as old posters of Bruce Lee and the Grateful Dead.

The concrete floors, soaring ceiling and bare black tables do make for one noisy restaurant, so much so that you can barely hear the person across from you. That might be the only thing you won’t love about Hawker Fare, as evidenced by a group of businesswomen on their lunch-hour who sat next to us at the communal table and wondered aloud to one another, “Would the noise put you off so much that you wouldn’t come back for the food?”

But come back for the food you most likely will when it’s this good.

Sticky, funky, irresistible peanuts.

We started with a bowl of Siamese Peanuts ($3), tossed with fennel, chili flakes and assertive shrimp paste. The flavor is funky in the best of ways. It’s got heat, umami to spare and a savoriness that cries out for a frosty beer.

I went for the Thai ice tea ($2.50), however. Served in a cute mason jar, it was sweet, fragrant and quenching.

Thai ice tea in a cute mason jar mug.

Sriracha from Thailand.

You won’t find the ubiquitous Rooster brand of sriracha here. Instead, Hawker Fare has bottles of the Grand Mountain brand from Thailand, which is less sweet and more balanced. Just ask and a bottle will appear at the table for your use.

Hawker Fare’s menu revolves around meal-in-one rice bowls. My husband couldn’t pass up the 24-hour pork belly ($9), cooked till impossibly tender, seasoned with five-spice and sweet soy sauce, and served with preserved mustard greens to cut the richness of the meat. For $1.50, you can add a fried egg to your rice bowl, which is just what my husband did. The bright yolk was still perfectly runny, adding further minerality and unctuousness to the whole dish.

My lemongrass chicken ($9) was fragrant with coriander and turmeric, which gave the poultry a hazy, curry color. Alongside was a tiny bowl of fish sauce, macerated with lime, garlic and chiles to add more zip, and a pile of fresh cilantro and mint to lend vibrancy.

Fragrant lemongrass chicken with a lovely pile of fresh herbs.

What’s also impressive is the quality of the rice, which tasted so fresh and had distinct grains that weren’t stuck or mashed together carelessly.

Like mother like son? Syhabout’s food is likely a far cry from his Mom’s. But no doubt, she must be proud of what he’s serving up at her old haunt.

More: My Dinner at Commis

And: My East Bay Express Story on Oakland’s Restaurant Resurgence

Plus: Eating My Way Through the Momofuku Restaurants in New York

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Date: Tuesday, 6. September 2011 5:25
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Chefs, General, Great Finds, Meat, Restaurants

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13 comments

  1. 1

    This place looks inventive and I agree with you, I love that he was upholding the family tradition, but putting his own unique spin on things.

  2. 2

    Hi Carolyn,

    I love your blog!

    I live in NYC and recently started cooking. I decided to start a blog called “Cookin’ with the Kaptain” and was wondering if you would let me know what you think. Here is the link:

    http://bit.ly/rc9zoR

    Thanks – KK

  3. 3

    24-hour pork belly?! We’re so there. :)

  4. 4

    really want those peanuts!!!

  5. 5

    I love the Thai iced tea there, it’s like ice cream in a mug! You have to go back and try the Issan sausage bowl, it’s my favorite of all the bowls. (P.S. avoid the tofu bowl, it’s basically tofu curry and I thought it wasn’t a traditional rice bowl.)

  6. 6

    Aloha, What a fun place! That perfect looking egg really caught my attention. Must visit when I am in the Bay Area next month. Thanks for having the link to Commis in your story. Look forward to going there as well.

  7. 7

    This food looks absolutely delicious! I’m not sure what his mom made but I would certainly go there for the son’s! Beautiful review.

  8. 8

    ohmigosh ohmigosh ohmigosh!!! Total nostalgia…I so very very much miss hawker fare. This is definitely a place I need to visit if I ever visit the Bay Area again!

  9. 9

    I’m with you all the way, Carolyn. I’ve been twice and can’t wait for #3.

  10. 10

    You NEED to try the kao mun gai (poached chicken over rice.) I’d second the recommendation on the Isaan sausage. The pork belly was OK.

    Overall, I like Hawker Fare much more than Commis (which I thought was over-rated when I went for dinner in April.)

  11. 11

    All the dish look very delicious but the one that’s kind of intriguing to me is the Siamese peanuts with shrimp paste. I like shrimp paste and of course I like peanuts but the combination is very interesting. Thank you for sharing this post Carolyn! I Hope you’re enjoying your week. :)

    ~ ray ~

  12. 12

    My friends and I have been here and we had the peanuts, the pork belly and the chicken too. I liked the pork belly (I always like pork belly :-P), but I wasn’t so thrilled by the peanuts, though.
    When we went, we made it just before the long line started to form. It’s a pretty hip place. :-) I like your ensemble description, very accurate. :D

  13. 13

    Loving the hawker centers of HK and Singapore this place is such treat!

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