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Bowled Over by Hawker’s Fare in Oakland

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.

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.

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.

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.

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