If you’re looking for “neck meat,” look elsewhere. A framed “Le Menu” poster above the pass at Hawker Fare may list daily specials, but don’t get your hopes up. Wednesday was supposedly reserved for “neck meat.” Or not. The poster was just for decoration, but thanks to a tight menu of Southeast Asia-inspired street food, I by no means left disappointed.
At the time of my visit, Hawker Fare had been open for only six weeks in the former uptown Oakland home of Manyda Thai, a restaurant owned by James Syhabout’s mom, now retired. The esteemed Commis chef-owner took over the boxy restaurant, the color of red rocks, featuring Thai street food with Singaporean and Malaysian accents, prepared by chef Justin Chu and sous chefs Kelly Ng and Josh Brigham.
My 2005 trip to Southeast Asia included some memorable experiences with Singapore hawkers, who will beg, borrow and steal (or just about) to get people to order food at their stalls. Hawker Fare doesn’t feature that kind of mayhem, as there’s zero competition beyond the front door, but the food is made in that maverick spirit.
A cartoon graffiti hawker anchors the left side of the wall, along with a Webster’s definition of the word from 1913 – “to sell goods by outcry in the street.” Other pop culture decoration included a Digital Underground concert poster and a Bruce Lee “Enter the Dragon” movie poster. Count Basie and the Grateful Dead even made an appearance.
My one-man eating adventure began with a generous helping of Siamese Peanuts ($3) from the Snack Aisle. They tossed roasted peanuts with shrimp paste, chile flake, fennel and scallions. With a squeeze of lime, the sticky, savory cluster became not just pungent and spicy, but also tangy.
My knowledgeable waiter recited a couple daily specials, and the one that piqued my interest featured slices of grilled eggplant tossed with savory black bean sauce, a condiment with no black beans whatsoever, which was designed to approximate black bean sauce. Kind of a strange concept, and the eggplant was a little too dry, but it was hard to argue with a savory paste including Thai chilies, ginger, cumin, garlic and scallions.
24hr Pork Belly ($9) “tom khem” style, was available with a fried farm egg, but the three slabs of belly (probably more than any person needs) was already plenty rich. The fatty, slow-cooked, practically caramelized pork was infused with five spice and sweet soy sauce and came with a dome of steamed white rice, rice bowls being the core of Hawker Fare’s menu. Preserved mustard greens and strands of pickled onion helped to balance the flavorful bowl. Well, they gave it their best effort.
My stomach was near capacity, but it was impossible to resist a trip to the Sugar Stall due to four magic words “Straus Dairy soft serve.” Hawker Fare isn’t the first Bay Area establishment to incorporate this premium dairy into soft serve. Pizzeria Picco and Bi-Rite Creamery previously came to that brilliant culinary conclusion. However, neither place took the idea as far as Hawker Fare, which offers condensed milk soft serve in a cone, drowned with Thai coffee or in a Hawker Sundae ($6) with salted palm sugar caramel, candied red beans, puffed rice beads and lime whipped cream topping. They agreed to make me a smaller sundae, and it was easy to like the array of textures and flavors, with an earthy base, sweet middle and tangy top.
Hawker Fare didn’t exactly evoke memories of stalls in Singapore, Saigon and Bangkok, but it’s still a high value addition to Oakland, and a compelling international alternative from thoughtful chefs.