Hawkers and Bai Cha Try to Take It to the Asian Street
One warm, late summer night, there was an actual hawker outside of Hawkers, the new Southeast Asian street food eatery near Union Square. She was passing out menus from her stack to anyone who would take one, but no one was in the restaurant, and she seemed downhearted. The menu listed some of the greatest hits of Malaysian, Singaporean, and Thai snacks—satay, char kway teo, roti, and so on—but the red-walled, graffitied space looked forlorn and a little silly. That same week, I also got wind of Bai Cha, a new satay specialist and mini-market in Hell's Kitchen.
Lately it seems as if a new Manhattan restaurant peddling Asian "street food" opens every other day—in March, Betel started selling Thai snacks for a pretty penny, and recently Reserve, a Thai wine bar and "tapas" place, sprouted in Murray Hill. Perhaps this all started with the yuppified banh mi craze and is expanding from there. Who knew that the flavorful dishes sizzled up by far-flung vendors would become as ubiquitous (and as vulnerable to mediocrity) as New York panini shops and wine bars before them? But here we are, in the age of a chicken spring roll in every pot.
Neither Hawkers nor Bai Cha will blow your mind, but both play their roles ably—the first as a late-night kill-a-craving joint, the second as an adequate lunch spot. Hawkers is owned by the folks behind the East Village's pan-Asian Friend House. The new place is an odd establishment, with an interior that's trying a little too hard to be edgy—graffiti is "street," and they serve street food, get it? The playlist is enough to give you whiplash—bounding from "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor" to "Hey, Soul Sister." One long U-shaped counter shoots down the center of the room, where you can perch on a stool and have a drink before the food arrives. The beer selection is much better than it has to be, stocking Allagash, Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale, and Japanese Angry Boy Brown Ale, among others. Hawkers stays open until 2 a.m. on weekends, clearly wanting to cultivate the same late-night hubbub that real Southeast Asian hawker centers attract.
The restaurant has a Malaysian-born chef, and it's best to stick with the Malaysian dishes, as some of the Thai stuff lands with a clunk—does anyone really need yet another syrupy red curry duck? But at its best, Hawkers offers easily accessible pleasures—bean curd drenched in spicy peanut sauce, say, or wiggly noodles stir-fried with plenty of oil or tamarind-glazed pork ribs, sweet and sticky. Call it drunk food if you want, but not in a derogatory way—it's just simple, decent stuff with lots of flavor. The prices are not Chinatown-cheap, but nothing on the menu is over $13 and portions are generous.
Among the snacks, go for the grilled pork ribs lacquered with tamarind and hoisin—like something you might find on a latter-day pupu platter, they're exceedingly tender and fatty, with a sugary-tart outer crust. For a vegetarian—but just as pleasantly junky—option, try the crisp-fried pillow of bean curd, stuffed with bean sprouts and covered in a thick robe of peanut satay sauce. Popiah, the Malaysian-style wheat-crepe-wrapped summer rolls, are just fine with their immoderate slick of more hoisin.
Rice and noodle dishes make up the heart of the menu, but vary in quality. Char kuay teo—stir-fried broad noodles—is marooned in an inexplicable swamp of cornstarch-heavy, goopy egg gravy that seems to have no seasoning at all. On the other hand, Mamak-style (that's Malaysian Muslim-Indian) Maggi noodles—the kinky dried pasta that comes in packages all over Asia—are a low-brow wonder, fried with lots of egg, pressed tofu, and shrimp, addictively savory in a way that might point to a judicious sprinkle of MSG.
A fried chicken leg on a pile of white rice has a crackly golden crust, and moist, turmeric-tinted flesh. On the side, find a sticky heap of caramelized onion sambal, a worthy hot-sour partner to the poultry. The fried rice, though, lacks any kind of nuance, topped with the pinkest, most sugary sausage I've ever eaten.
In the Michael Huynh mold, Hawkers also offers three burgers—fusiony things, including a soy-braised pulled-pork rendition. The chicken satay version features two stacked, unnaturally tender chicken patties sodden with peanut sauce. If you think you'd like it, you probably would—I did.
That burger proves light years better than its chicken satay sandwich cousin up at Bai Cha. Sandwiches are not this place's strong suit, marred with dense, dry bread and bare fillings. Instead, stick to the satay itself. There are five different varieties, and they can be had by the trio with pickled vegetables ($3.95) or as a combo with coconut rice and green papaya salad ($5.95 for three skewers, $7.95 for five). The beef is particularly tasty, sliced thinly and grilled in its coconut milk–coriander seed sauce. The red curry chicken version has an appealing spicy richness, though the honey pork flirts with blandness.
Bai Cha functions just fine as a quick, affordable lunch spot, but if it jettisoned its sad sandwiches, it'd come closer to the spirit of actual street food. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Anthony Bourdain noted that New York's food scene could use some variation on Singapore-style hawker stalls: "One dish, one cook," was how he put it, because so many stalls derive their greatness from obsessive focus on a single offering. In Manhattan, we're still waiting for that specialization, biding our time in places where drunken man noodles butt heads with popiah.
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