I was smitten by the first Hawkers, which opened in Orlando in 2011. Aiming to re-create the street foods of Asia, it was an edgy, industrial space with concrete floors, corrugated aluminum wainscoting and an audacious color scheme. Named for the sidewalk peddlers who "hawk" via exuberant call or chant, it was a fun place to go with friends, racking up a pile of empty plates and chopstick-battling for a last bite of Korean bulgogi beef or Malaysian roti flatbread with savory curry dipping sauce.
It was lively, it was casual, it was cheap. Owners Kaleb Harrell, Allen Lo, Danny Ho and Wayne Yung, childhood friends, found a formula that was replicated in a second location opened in Jacksonville in February 2014, and then a third that opened in March on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg not far from Ferg's and the Trop. It has upped the glamor from the Orlando location, the new building a great windowed box with wide patio, open floor plan and one long wall of dramatic underlit apothecary jars. That said, it's a totally appropriate pregame spot: Dishes top out at $8.50, the beer list is strong and there are a dozen sakes in several styles offered in single serves all the way up to 750 milliliters.
I'm going to say up front that the kitchen doesn't have quite the oomph of the flagship restaurants. Dishes are often demure in their spicing — I don't only mean that things tend not to be fiery; lemongrass seldom asserts its fragrant perfume and basic sauces like nuoc cham lack a discernible fish sauce waft. I'm hoping the St. Pete team is still sussing out the tastes of the local market and will dial things up a bit once we prove our mettle.
Bring it. We can take it.
Asian folks I know have snarked that it's Asian food for white people. I don't agree (but large sections of the menu devoted to chopstick etiquette aren't aiding Hawkers' cause). What I've enjoyed there are the dishes of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, parts of the world with amazing food that seems frequently overlooked in this country.
The roti canai are a good place to start: Flaky like puff pastry, with a lush butteriness, the rounds ($3 for one, $1.50 each additional) are torn apart, each ragged swath dragged through a low bowl of mild curry sauce that is hard not to love. From there, the prawn mee soup ($8.50) is a charmer, a classic egg noodle dish from Singapore and Maylasia with a rich and just slightly spicy dried shrimp broth, the noodles cradling boiled egg, shrimp, sliced chicken, yu choy (imagine if Chinese broccoli and spinach had a love child) and a sprinkling of crunchy fried shallots. Traditionally, lard is added to this soup to thicken and enrich it, but American audiences might not be ready for that innovation. This one is lard-free.
Hawkers' version of mee goreng ($8.50) wasn't traditional in my experience, its sweet brown chili sauce a little cloying and heavy for the dish of stir-fried noodles with tofu, shrimp, scrambled egg, scallion, shreds of napa cabbage and bean sprouts, all of it topped with crushed peanut and a whoosh of lime juice. I'm told there's a style called mee goreng mamek that has a heavier, sweet chili soy sauce, so maybe this was that.
At this point, steamed pork belly buns and East-West tacos are becoming old hat in Tampa Bay restaurants (top pork buns go to Ichicoro Ramen; Anise Global Gastrobar is in second place). Hawkers' banh mi-style bulgogi chicken buns ($7.50) were pleasant, although they didn't have the verve usually imparted by pickled daikon and carrot or a liberal sprinkling of fresh herbs. But I'd go back for the bulgogi beef tacos ($7), though the bulgogi beef skewers by themselves were a bit cloying and needed a spicy or pickley counterpart.
Actually, the best dishes on a couple of visits were vegetables: tempura-battered green beans given just a dusting of five spice ($5.50), a surprising dish of wok-tossed lettuce, caramelized around the edges and dotted with velvety lengths of shiitake and red chiles ($4), or the so-not-Asian-but I-like-it-anyway dish of mashed potatoes ($3.50) topped with a ladle of the curry sauce that comes with the roti.
Service is still finding its footing at Hawkers, but bartenders hustle, especially on game days, and there are enough quenching Asian-inspired cocktails that it could emerge as a drinking destination as warm weather settles in. If the kitchen can bring a little more rigor to some of the dishes executed so effectively at the Orlando outpost, Hawkers will be yet another newcomer helping to cement downtown St. Pete as a dining destination.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.