Taste of the Town

Street Smart


Taste the Soul of Thai Street Food at Hawker Fare

      The pork belly started talking to me the first time I read Hawker Fare’s menu online. Its mellow voice rose above the siren chorus of the other rice bowls. “I’ve been cooked for 24 hours with house-made five-spice seasoning,” it hummed. “You will never regret ordering me.” f
      Lemongrass chicken and Issan sausage, I thought, you’ll have to wait your turn. The same goes for you, kao mun gai (poached chicken with salted mung bean sauce) and kao plak (rice congee), with your 1,000-year-old eggs, sliced ginger and scallions, chicken cracklings and fried garlic.
      My mind was so focused on pork belly that my car drove itself to Webster and 23rd streets and pulled into a parking spot right in front of the door.
      It was a Saturday night and I fully expected to find Hawker Fare packed with Yelpers, hipsters and foodies as eager as I to learn what celebrity-chef street food tastes like.
      Everything pointed to an overflow crowd and a long wait: The corner storefront is just two blocks away from the Luka’s-Ozumo-Picán-Plum-Bakesale Betty hub of Uptown feasting at Broadway and Grand; the food truck phenomenon has gone viral and ethnic street eats are the new tapas; and four buzz-filled weeks had passed since James Syhabout turned the key on the space once occupied by his mother’s restaurant.
      It’s a trendy food story, a heartwarming family story and a chance to pay less than 10 bucks for dishes conjured by the chef who earned Oakland’s only Michelin star, at Commis, with his personalized take on the foam-and-tweezers cuisine he learned at The Fat Duck (England), el Bulli (Spain) and Manresa (Los Gatos).
      Nonetheless, fewer than half the 49
seats — black chairs, black tables, black banquettes — were occupied at 8:30 p.m. Weekday lunches and Friday nights were already busy, I was told, but Saturdays had not yet caught fire. That was fine by me. The less-than-bustling room was conducive to close study of what Syhabout and his Hawker chef Justin Yu (from the Momofuku Ssam Bar in Manhattan and Quince in San Francisco) are up to.
      Hawker Fare is Syhabout’s return to roots, in both the street food of Thailand, where he was born, and the homey feel of Oakland, where he grew up. On one mustard-yellow wall “Hawker” and its definition (“to sell goods by outcry in the street”) are rendered in huge graffiti lettering just above a row of Bay Area concert posters (from Count Basie to Digital Underground). Rotating fans and a disco ball hang from the high, black ceiling. Easy listening hip-hop and vintage soul provide a generation-spanning soundtrack.
      The menu pretty much tells you what you’re getting. Larb ($7) is a grilled beef salad with red onions, mint, cilantro and toasted rice powder. Mussels ($9) are flavored with mint, cilantro and lemongrass. But the words don’t account for chemical reactions, balance or presentation. Syhabout and Yu clearly do. When I bit into the first of five big, tender tiger shrimp (an off-menu appetizer special, $8), I sensed that “greater than the sum of its parts” — in this case, house-made red chili paste, scallions, basil, bacon pieces and a bed of cabbage — was going to be a Hawker theme.
      After the shrimp, I rejoined my conversation with the pork belly, three thick glistening rectangles bedded on something slaw-like and leaning against a big white dome of rice capped with a sunny-side up egg ($1.50 extra). It was almost too lovely to disturb. Almost. I forked my way into the banquet in the large white bowl. The creamy yolk merged with the crispy fatty pork — lusciously. Many mysterious tastes did a song and dance in my mouth. I signaled to my attentive server (Jason, as I later learned from the receipt), and asked for more details. The vinegary slaw was preserved Chinese mustard greens and fennel; the pungent dipping sauce blended Dijon mustard, sugar, vinegar and preserved vegetables.
      Jason proved a valuable resource on later visits, with Robin, on subsequent (and busier) Saturdays. He deconstructed the magic of two spectacular special apps: deeply smoky and sweet green beans stir-fried with house-made chili sauce, bacon lardons, green onions, dried shrimp and chives ($5.50); and sweet green Italian peppers ($5), cut into tubes like Chinese finger traps and fried in oil with chili flakes and two kinds of salt.
      We sampled much of the rest of Hawker’s fare, from a huge fistful of roasted Siamese peanuts ($3), tossed with shrimp paste, chili flakes and fennel (good with a Singha beer, $4.50) to the beef larb (scintillating) to the mussels ($6 in an aromatic broth worth sopping up to the last drop) to the Hawker Sundae ($6), Strauss condensed milk soft serve imaginatively adorned with salted palm sugar caramel, candied red beans, puffed rice and frothy lime-spiked whipped cream. I liked the coconut braise of the thinly sliced, bone-in short ribs ($9.50), as well as the grilled scallions, virtual garden of mint and cilantro, and accompanying dark peanut sauce, but the meat was a tad dry. Robin handed off most of her grilled lemongrass chicken ($9) — despite the fragrant tang of turmeric, coriander, chili, lime, garlic and fish sauce. She’s not big on skin and bits that look like, well, parts of
a bird.
      Other dishes crooned to us. In the future I might cuckold the pork belly for the meatloaf-like Issan (that’s northeast Thailand) sausage ($9.50) with a high fat ratio bumped up by braised pork skin, and redolent with coriander, garlic, chili and lemongrass. Robin exchanged eternal vows with the firm, silky homemade tofu ($8.50) in a sea of vadouvan (French masala) coconut milk, herbs, taro and bamboo shoots. And we both were smitten by the creamy rice pudding ($5) served prettily but inconveniently in a preserves jar with a layer of sliced bananas, a layer of banana jam and a sesame crumble topping.
      As with most dishes, each bite inspired a bit of wonder, but differently than at Syhabout’s flagship, Commis. There you taste the genius; at Hawker Fare, you taste the soul — and hear the song — behind the smarts.

Hawker Fare, 2300 Webster St.,Oakland (510) 832-8896.
Serves lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner Tue.–Sat. 

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