An air of expectancy permeated the bi-level, concrete-clad space of Urban Hawker as I arrived on the first day around 11 a.m., hoping to avoid the crowds. The stalls had been curated by K.F. Seetoh — guidebook writer and friend of Anthony Bourdain, who had a hand in the idea — to resemble a hawker center in Singapore, where street food is presented in a food-court setting.
I noted that three of the 17 stalls were as yet unfinished as I feverishly darted around ordering things, then returned to pick them up for a gang of friends to try. We could sit at a choice of tables, counters, and stands scattered throughout as well as a pocket park directly across the street.
Neon signs overhead lit counters, creating a carnival-like atmosphere throughout the hall, which runs from 50th to 51st streets in a building located between Sixth and Seventh avenues just northeast of Times Square. We headed for the most traditional Singaporean hawker food, and secondarily visited those stalls that presented modern inventions. Here are 12 dishes to try at the new Urban Hawker.
Hainanese chicken rice at Hainan Jones
I made a beeline for Hainan Jones, a stall in which Seetoh himself is involved, that specializes in Hainanese chicken rice, one of the most popular hawker dishes. It originated on an island off the south coast of China, and NYC already has several cafes specializing in various versions of it. This manifestation ($19) was a revelation: The steamed chicken so delicately spiced, the broth-soaked rice so rich, the chile sauce so orange and nuanced, that the dish was exceptional. I could eat it for lunch every day.
Lontong at Padi
Next up was Padi, descended from a full-service Malay restaurant in Singapore. It showcased one of my favorite Malaysian and Indonesian ingredients, lontong. Like creamy white dum-dum bullets, compressed rice lozenges lie in a thick yellow chicken broth with boiled eggs and fish cake with crunchies on top. At $10.90 it was one of the better deals at Urban Hawker.
Stingray fried rice at Mr. Fried Rice
One stall, Mr. Fried Rice, specializes in multiple forms of the dish like tom yum and salmon teriyaki. The stingray fried rice ($17), though, was one of the best dishes we tried and very Singaporean — a fish wing heavily coated with a dark paste that burst with sour, salty, sweet, and fishy flavors.
White bee hoon at White Restaurant
White Restaurant is descended from a restaurant that was founded as a hawker stall in 1999. Its specialty is white bee hoon, a dish of fine rice noodles (“bee hoon”) in a pale broth said to be simmered for eight hours. The dish is stoked with egg, squid, and shrimp and comes alive with added chile sauce. (Most things we tried at Urban Hawker were well seasoned but not as spicy as we’d hoped.)
Murtabak and lamb biryani at Mamak’s Corner
The stall that excited us most as lunchtime customers began to throng the space was Mamak’s Corner, which presents Indian food as it has been adapted on the Malay peninsula. Everyone is probably familiar with roti canai (a flatbread with a small serving of chicken curry), but that dish represents a whole class of recipes that include murtabak ($13), a roti folded around a filling of ground meat and egg presented with a chunky peanut sauce. The lamb biryani ($16) was also fab, more like a lamb curry poured over pilaf rice, with an elusive flavor that hinted of camphor. Dosas were also available, but we were already feeling stuffed.
Chicken with peanut sauce and roti john at Ashes Burnnit
Ashes Burnnit is a chain that specializes in burgers and other sandwiches, including a chicken breast slathered with peanut sauce ($13) that was pretty good and very filling. The roti john ($12) is also intriguing, a gut buster filled with a shaved-beef omelet and various sauces, the appearance of which slightly scared us before we tried it. It proved nearly impossible to eat.
Sardine puff and various cakes at Lady Wong
We were craving some sweets and Lady Wong provided them. This bakery whips up cakes and pastries with tropical-fruit themes and Japanese, Chinese, and French flourishes. After delighting in its savory and spicy sardine puff ($4.25), we tried a wonderful layer cake made with passion fruit and calamansi, a Philippine lime ($6.85); a rainbow steamed cake, with the texture of a mochi-like jelly ($3.25); and pandan cake ($3.25) that was a pleasing shade of mint green.
We left just as the hall was becoming overcrowded around 12:30 p.m., not just because curious diners had been attracted on its first day, but because the stalls were understandably slow in producing the orders, and long lines had formed as other customers waited for their dishes to be delivered.
Each stall offers 10 or more items — exacerbating waits — in contrast to traditional Singaporean hawker stalls, which often make only one or two specialties. Minor problems will doubtlessly be resolved, but even on its first day, Urban Hawker is offering some of the most interesting and sometimes delicious food court fare in Midtown.