A Road Best Traveled

The diverse Asian offerings at Hawkers Street Fare please both palate and pocketbook.

Food hawkers, local vendors who serve cheap and flavorful dishes from wheeled carts, are a ubiquitous sight in many countries. Culinary explorers headed for the tropical climes of Malaysia and Vietnam or the crowded streets of urban China horde their favorites and trade newly discovered locations like teen-agers swapping baseball cards.

The closest thing we’ve had to an itinerant food vendor in Orlando is the vegetarian hot dog cart that hangs out in late-night downtown. Until now, with the introduction of Hawkers Street Fare. Opened in mid-March, Hawkers celebrates the spirit and dishes of Asian food carts. The space on Mills Avenue is the former location of the Chinatown restaurant, which had its boosters and detractors over the years as business and quality waxed and waned. Hawkers is better.

The restaurant, with a simple and modern interior lined with corrugated tin sheets and tables topped with facsimiles of Asian newspapers, attracts a remarkable cross-section of customers. Young Asian couples share roast duck tacos while middle-aged Winter Parkers practically chew the skewers that held their now-devoured chicken satay, and Chinese seniors take a seat by the window, looking for a familiar taste from home in a bowl of rice noodles.

The people behind Hawkers have been inspired by family recipes from Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Hong Kong, and those legacies are reflected in the kitchen: four chefs, each specializing in one cuisine, using traditional techniques and flavors and adding a modern twist.

“We’re taking recipes that go back four generations,” says 29-year-old Wayne Yung, one of the owners. “These are things that have been served on the street for decades.”

Alan Lo (“I’m the Malaysian owner,” he says) has a background in fusion cuisine: his family ran a Chinese/Puerto Rican restaurant called El Flamboyan on Orange Blossom Trail. “Growing up in a Chinese restaurant,” the 31-year-old Lo says, “I would get tired of Chinese food. This is the kind of place I wanted to eat in.”

Street specialties from Malaysia, Vietnam and several regions of China journey across the menu like traders on the Silk Road. The trail leads to shrimp and chicken fried rice ($6) from Yangzhou in central China, once home to Marco Polo; a salad of crunchy jicama, cool cucumber and sweet peanut dressing ($4) that has its roots in pasembur, the Malaysian favorite side dish; peanut-laden chilled noodles ($5) from the spicy and multi-flavored Chengdu cuisine of Szechuan; and a bowl of curry Laksa ($6), a delight from Singapore rich with chicken, shrimp, firm-to-the-tooth noodles and a coconut curry broth that had me braving a spring downpour for another bowl.

Small plates predominate—I say small, but they’re quite large enough to share—with nothing on the menu over $6.50. Roti canai ($3), an Indian flatbread that is a Malay staple, is a fragrant chargrilled vehicle for its accompanying curry dipping sauce and a good way to start the meal. Spend an extra $1.50 for another piece of bread or you’ll just end up licking the bowl. For those looking for a veggie boost to their diet, there are several fresh non-meat items: Steamed yow choy cabbage in salty oyster sauce ($4), tofu lettuce wraps with shitake, garlic and ginger ($5) and battered and fried green beans in five-spice seasoning ($4.50) are just a few.

The modern touches are designed to attract a new audience to traditional foods, variations such as little savory tacos loaded with five-spice fish or roast duck ($5-6), and miniature Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches stuffed with barbecue pork or tofu ($5).

Four families, from four regions, with four generations of recipes. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if world-wandering food explorers make Hawkers their next great find.

ADDRESS 1103 N. Mills Ave., Orlando
PHONE 407-237-0606
ENTREES $3-6.50

Categories: Reviews