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May 18, 2011 12:41 AM

Hawker Fare [Oakland]

I stopped by this evening on an errand to pick up a credit card I had left elsewhere. I was glad for the PR blast that seemed to be going around the internet on today, opening day, as I learned it was open until 6, and I wouldn't have though of stopping by, as I had read it was opening for "lunch" previously.
I arrived later than I expected, at 5:45, and was welcomed to a table, but felt pressure (from my own uptight mind, not the friendly service) to order quickly since it was so close to closing. I ordered the green papaya salad and the 24-hour pork belly rice bowl. I had intended to order the khao mun gai, but was too tempted by the pork belly. I noticed quite a bit after I had ordered that a side khao gai (rice in chicken fat and broth) was available.
The pork belly dish was delicious. There was a generous portion of pork belly, very tender from the long cooking, but with some caramelization on the top and bottom. It came with pickled mustard greens and fennel over rice and a great side of homemade mustard. I added the egg option--it is no slow-cooked modern cuisine egg, but rather a very nicely done crisp bottomed sunny-side up fried egg, salted perfectly for mixing into the rice bowl. I really like crisp edges of this sort, if they're done well, and these were. If these guys want to start making a Thai omelet, they'd have me stopping by frequently.
The green papaya salad was less to my taste. I always have trouble gauging what I will like at these upscalish/non-traditional takes on street food/traditional cuisine. After perusing the menu with no pressure I should have chosen the other salad, which sounded like a green salad with interesting ingredients like lotus root mixed in. Anyway, I ordered the green papaya salad because I like som tam, and it seemed like it would be a fairly straightforward version of it from the description on the menu, calling it som tam dressing and mentioning dried shrimp (though there was the odd mention of tamarind). (Also, there were other dishes on the menu where scare quotes were used, as a nod to a traditional dish, such as the "Issan sausage", which I believe was an unfermented patty with appropriate flavors, and no quotes in this item.) It arrived looking great, with yardlong beans and cherry tomatoes, and ground peanuts on the side to mix in so they didn't get soggy while waiting, but the taste was way off, and not just because I was expecting it to be traditional. It didn't contain any spice that I could detect, and I would have definitely squeezed a lime on it, if I had had one. I asked for some red pepper, which made it much more edible. I often feel like I am just being picky, or being too tied to the original to be open to delicious new innovations, like when I mention that the salad didn't seem pounded together, but to make this salad lacking in spice or acidity makes me wonder why make it at all.
They offer desserts with Strauss condensed milk flavored ice cream, from a soft serve machine. I had neither the stomach nor the time to try it, but was intrigued by the offerings. In addition to in a cone, they offer an affogato and a sundae that has salted palm sugar caramel and red bean something. I'll definitely thought it was a good value and will be back for a quick rice bowl and sundae sometime soon.

Hawker Fare
2300 Webster St, Oakland, CA 94612

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  1. I thought the "Kao Mun Gai" was great - the chicken is prepared sous-vide, so the meat is really tender, and it's a generous portion too. The house-made dipping sauce is excellent. I just wished that the rice itself had a stronger chicken flavor. I'm curious, too, about what kind of chicken they're using for this -- I forgot to ask.

    I agree with you about the green papaya salad, but I'll admit that that dish might just not be my thing anyway. Our server clarified that it's the Laotian style that they're doing, so it's really heavy on the fish sauce. I was surprised too by the lack of heat. I'd order the larb or the chopped salad instead next time - I was going to order the larb, but then our waitress recommended the papaya salad.

    Siamese peanuts made for a really addictive snack - I would order those again in a heartbeat. Thai iced tea was very good, not overly sweet.

    And I enjoyed the "affogato" - the condensed milk flavor soft-serve is good, with a nice texture. It's got that subtle condensed milk sweetness, but doesn't hit you over the head with it - my dining partner thought it just tasted like a high-quality vanilla. When you pour the coffee over it, it's kind of like drinking a reinterpreted Thai or Vietnamese iced coffee. The sundae sounds pretty interesting too.

    Anyone know if they'll expand the menu at all for dinner, once they start serving it?

    1 Reply
    1. re: abstractpoet

      That the chicken rice has no chicken flavor is a travesty of hawker fare all across Southeast Asia.

      That Syhabout is Thai - and with one michelin star - but still can't recreate such a basic dish is an absolute disgrace.

    2. I had high hopes for this place but was a bit disappointed with lunch today - the pork belly is very good, but I was not offered the housemade mustard the OP received - instead, I had to borrow a (commercial) bottle of sriracha from the table next to me. The rice was overcooked and gummy.

      I'd been hoping to see some of the innovative twists Syhabout is known for, or maybe some Momofuku Ssam Bar influence, given chef Yu's experience - it looks like they're aiming for more classic, homey fare instead. Given the more classic bent, I'd still hope for perfectly cooked rice, and maybe housemade sambals and pickled chilis on each table. I'd also love to see a few vegetable sides.

      I really want this place to be good and will give it another shot in a few months time.

      1 Reply
      1. re: daveena

        I think the reason you were disappointed and I wasn't was that I had low expectations going in, as I usually do for upscaled street food (and I've never been to Commis). But your suggestion for house-made condiments is spot on. The mustard sauce served with my bowl tied with the egg for the best part of my meal. And my disappointment with the papaya salad would have been alleviated much sooner if there had been any, especially the standard, condiments on any table, but it was opening day.

        3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

      2. I also had lunch and have to say that the previous posters were accurate.

        I think my main disappointment was that I expected this would be Asian casual fare touched by the exquisite taste/guidance of Commis/James S. Something worth a trip? Instead, this may be simply a place where Oakland business folk can get a decently priced lunch with a few smart gourmet touches in a western-friendly environment.

        As expected for an opening restaurant, the service was very on top of things. major kudos to that. If they didn't know the answer to a question (what is this delicious herb in the bowl?) they would do their best to find out.

        The servers suggested the papaya salad, which we both did NOT like. We both didn't like the texture of the shredded papaya, the noticeable fishiness, and the lack of flavor balance (not enough sour, not enough hot) for our expectations (which were more Thai than Laotian). I will say the busboy and the server noticed we hardly touched it, and they offered to take it off the bill and solicited our feedback. I don't really mind eating a different variation of a dish, but it does have to taste good to be worthy of a push from the server. Tm and abstract poet were too kind in their gentle let downs of this dish. I should've listened to them...

        The rice bowls were pretty good. They suggested the chicken, pork belly, and meatball/sausage rice bowls--all with egg addition. My partner had the sous vide chicken--nice (with salty dark sauce)! And I had the meatball/sausage--also tasty. The meats were nicely executed (chicken was velvety, grill marks on the sausage) and there were beautiful and fresh tasting herbs as an accompaniment. I will agree with daveena about the sad texture of the steamed rice in the RICE bowl. My rice cooker at home can beat the pants off the rice at Hawker. Rice, like bread, if done well, just MAKES the meal...

        I'm not a big decor person, but I did like the large windows and natural light. The wall decorations were ok (music posters, graffiti in one specific section upward) but I wasn't quite sure if it was thematic or aesthetic. Music was sort of cool (zero 7) and got us talking about what we listened to 5 yrs ago (in a good way).

        If I were to suggest anything beyond what i've mentioned above, I'd say try to offer more interesting drink options--options that are quick/easy to mix up for servers, but unusual/tasty. (Southeast) Asian fare seems to have a lot of amazing drinks that westerners are less familiar with for no good reason, including salt plum lemon sodas, grass jellys, and 1-2 hot tea options. Those can boost the guest check an easy $3 per person per table, and be very satisfying to complement salty meat/rice dishes. The current drink mix is standard condensed milk iced tea/coffee, palm juice, and then an assortment of crush, coke, and other sodas. Sort of uninspired--and surprisingly so.

        After the salty meat/rice bowls, there definitely was the need to sweeten the palate. The menu had mostly Strauss soft serve based items which on this day was out of order. Once again, I'm not sure if it will add more burden to the kitchen, but after the rice bowls, we were craving mango/papaya something... Something not necessarily fatty/western cream-based, but cleaner/tropical-er.

        If the menu offerings were more inspired, I would have been willing to spend double what my $25 guest check (for 2) turned out to be. The rice bowls were good--but as I mentioned, we probably won't have a craving to drive out from SF until we hear that things have become more Commis'd up.

        Hawker Fare
        2300 Webster St, Oakland, CA 94612

        8 Replies
        1. re: creuset

          See, this is part of the problem with a "celebrity chef" trying to do something casual: people expect it to be a "destination" place when in fact I think he just wants it to be a "place where Oakland business folk can get a decently priced lunch with a few smart gourmet touches in a western-friendly environment." The whole idea of "destination" casual food is a contradiction in terms! That said, sounds like there are still execution problems that need to be ironed out.

          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            Even the most casual place can be a destination if the food is great.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              It can be. But that's not the point. It's not fair to criticize something for not being what it isn't intended to be.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                I get the impression from Syhabout's comments that he wants to serve really good Asian street food that he himself would like to eat.

                creuset's major complaints were unappetizing papaya salad, second-rate rice, and an uninspired selection of drinks and desserts. That has nothing to do with how casual the place is.

            2. re: Ruth Lafler

              I think the problem is that upscale ethnic food has a tendency to be dumbed down. Like Burma Super Star on Telegraph--pleasant enough, but hardly revelatory for the price. This has been my objection to Slanted Door since they left Mission Street: high-priced Vietnamese food targeted at people who won't go to the Tenderloin for real Vietnamese food.

              Also I can't think of a place that is less "street" than Commis with its neat kitchen and immaculate foods in clear plastic containers.

              Slanted Door
              Ferry Slip, San Francisco, CA 94111

              3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

            3. re: creuset

              I was there for late lunch yesterday (5pm to avoid the lunch crush and give the kitchen and servers room to do their best) and had a better, and better-balanced, experience than earlier posters. The rice in my pork belly rice bowl was perfect to my Asian/fusion palate--firm but not chewy grains, separate enough to take on lots of sauce. The two sauces--an aged mustard/hoisin sauce for the pork belly dish and the chili-fish sauce "salsa" that adorns each table--were excellent, the latter a great combination of fiery and funky. I like pork belly caramelized and crispy, sent along a request to the kitchen, and it came out just as I wanted. Chef Yu was cooking, and I thought the dish compared favorably in conception and execution with dishes at Momofuku, whence he came, but it was definitely simpler fare (and Syhabout has said that his goal at Hawker is the kind of comfort food he associates with home, not Commis Goes To Asia). My only complaint is that the optional fried egg on top was overdone; yolk should have run more unctuously to coat the grains of rice. I'm planning a progressive meal for this emerging foodie enclave, to include Plum, Hawker, Luka, Xolo and Blue Bottle.

              Blue Bottle Cafe
              66 Mint St, San Francisco, CA 94103

              3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

              1916 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94612

              1. re: dordogne

                @What a sad meal at Hawker Fare today. There was no ginger beer, which seemed like the best choice to go with the very limited menu. I had the beef short ribs which were dry and tough, nothing with them but dry rice and a few herbs. The sauce with them was thick, tasteless and also dry. My friend had the chicken which was not dry so I borrowed some of his sauce. The meat however had that sous vide strange texture and little taste. "Oh well," we thought, we'd have the affogato. No. They were out of ice cream at 1:00 PM. I don't know what street this food is supposed to be from, but it's not one I'll be back to.

                Hawker Fare
                2300 Webster St, Oakland, CA 94612

                1. re: Nojones

                  To your point the picture shown here of the short ribs appears to confirm that they are dry. They look dry in the picture.


            4. Tried Hawker Fare for lunch yesterday.

              Pork Belly was very good with pickled greens ($9). The wasabi/plum sauce condiment was unnecessary IMO. It might go well with other dishes but the pork belly and greens were better without it.

              Chopped salad was also very good ($6.50). Crispy fried lotus root added a nice crunch. Sesame seeds added a nutty flavor. Lettuce was fresh and the dressing light and tangy. The menu says it comes with a hardboiled egg but mine didn't.

              I'm no fan of the Siamese peanuts though ($3). I like the listed ingredients but the end result was too sweet, sticky and bland, and not peanuty, shrimp pasty, chili flakey or fennely for my taste. With that cast of characters I expected a taste explosion.

              Prices were quite reasonable.

              I'll definitely go back and try more.

              Hawker Fare
              2300 Webster St, Oakland, CA 94612

              2 Replies
              1. re: 10foot5

                Went back for dinner tonight and coincidentally had all of the same items as 10foot5, plus a few others.

                I actually like those peanuts quite a bit, flavor-wise - the only thing I don't like is how they get kind of wet, making them a little gross to share if you're using your fingers. Anyway, I could see how they wouldn't be to everyone's liking.

                Really liked the chopped salad, which for us did come with a chopped up hard-boiled egg. First time I've had lotus root fried into chips like that. Nice. The salad was a lot bigger than we thought it was going to be, so it was the perfect size for sharing. I liked it the same way I like the tea leaf salad they serve at Burmese restaurants - I guess it's the texture thing and the slightly pungent flavor profile.

                We also shared one of the specials they had today: fried haricots verts with bacon ($3.75). Very lemongrassy sauce and a ton of Asian chives on top. Not bad and a decent-sized portion.

                I had the pork belly rice bowl + fried egg, and my wife had the congee (w/ thousand year eggs and chicken cracklins) + egg. I continue to be impressed by the value here, in terms of price to quality/quantity of food ratio, especially with the pork belly (three generous slices). As noted by a poster above, I think they've improved the preparation of the rice itself quite a bit since opening week - definitely not "overcooked" or "gummy" as some people may have experienced. And our fried eggs were served perfectly runny, which had not been the case during my first visit.

                My wife's congee was tasty but very light - there's not a ton of "stuff" in it, so I think it's best to order an appetizer or two to have with it - the peanuts and green beans we'd ordered turned out to be a perfect match.

                Our only disappointment was with the soft-serve "affogato," which I enjoyed on opening day - but this time the condensed milk flavor in the ice cream was completely undetectable (I think it really may have just been vanilla), plus it was a little bit icy. Maybe it was just an bad batch.

                1. re: abstractpoet

                  I like to order the peanuts then mix it into my rice dish (usually the pork belly). No messy hands! :)

              2. I had the pork belly bowl for lunch last week Monday. The pork was delicious with a nice sear giving a crisp skin to the fork tender meat. I liked the side of mustard mixed in with the rice as well as on the meat.

                The rice was not good. It was hard and clumpy like it was leftovers from the previous night's dinner service. They need to hire someone who knows how to cook rice.