Hawkers brings the Asian roadside nosh indoors
Taste a rainbow of Chinese, Malay, Viet and Indian street food
Published: May 19, 2011
1103 N. Mills Ave.
Mobile eateries - be they hot dog carts, food trucks or food stalls at farmer's markets - now thrive in our city like never before, doing their part to legitimize, diversify and elevate the food scene in Orlando. Food trucks alone have foodies in a frenzy, with bazaars and weekly pods corralling scores of starved citizens into open-air locales to sample delectables ranging from carrot-spice cupcakes to Salvadoran pupusas.
The idea of centralizing street food stalls isn't new - markets in Malaysia and Singapore consolidate vendors who hawk comestibles of all sorts, and that's the concept behind Hawkers, a destination draw on Mills Avenue. Yes, there's only one vendor under this roof, but the options comprise Malay, Chinese, Viet and Indian dishes served in an environment decidedly more hygienic, and less cacophonous, than your average Singaporean roadside noodle shop. The restaurant occupies the same space where the Chinatown Seafood Restaurant stood for many years, but the dark furnishings have been stripped in favor of a frills-free interior punched up with corrugated tin siding and tables embossed with Asian newspapers. Servers dressed in black scurry about the place bringing small plates, most of which are $6 or less, to the assembled young urbanites who pack the joint every night - no surprise, given the location, variety and price point.
Naturally, not all dishes hit the mark, but the owners' experience in Asian street cuisine results in many dishes that do. (The five partner-owners have successful street-hawker relatives in Malaysia.) Chunks of Cantonese cod ($6) glazed with a ginger sauce seemed very ordinary at first, but the fillets - pan-seared, then stir-fried - surprised us with their crisp texture. Boneless bite-size pork "choppettes" ($4.50) coated in five-spice seasoning were fried wonders, as were greaseless chicken wings ($4) prepared in the Hainan style with a cinnamon-spice coating and served with a jolting garlic-ginger sauce. We liked the crackling bits of roasted duck in the banh mi sliders ($6) as well, and the signature char kway teow ($6), advertised as "Malaysia's most popular street fare," a mix of wide rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp, chicken and shallots, was reminiscent of the superlative noodles served up at Tasty Wok. Limp noodles aside, we enjoyed the beguiling flavors of the curry laksa ($6), its broth enriched with coconut milk, tofu, shrimp and chicken. Egg slices and yu choy greens added additional color and texture.
Misses included a lifeless green papaya salad ($4) - a snoozefest of a starter - and a dreary basil fried rice ($4) that's hardly worthy of its place on the menu. I took slight offense to the roti in the roti canai ($3) - the flatbread was very much like the frozen prepackaged stuff you can get from any Indian grocer, and the curry laced with fish sauce was hardly remarkable. Desserts are nonexistent, but the beer list is extensive - this is a better place to snack and drink than sit down to a traditional meal.
Some would argue that replicating the animated atmosphere and scores of specialized dishes one would find at a gathering of hawkers' stalls is a next-to-impossible task and, in Orlando, it probably is, but Hawkers proffers a taste of Singapore's exotic gastronomica. If you're not one to take to the streets to eat your fill, Hawkers brings the street to you.
> Email Faiyaz Kara