As we continue to work through the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, many restaurants are struggling to survive. And for those that opened up right before the North Carolina shutdown, it’s even harder. New restaurants that haven’t had a chance to establish a customer base, Hawkers Asian Street Food in Chapel Hill is a perfect example of that difficult scenario. But if you’re a fan of SE Asian street cuisine, you’ll really enjoy this new restaurant at University Place! Part of a smallish restaurant chain that has a locations in Charlotte and the Southeast, Hawkers Asian Street Food is dishing out some wonderful eats cooked with deft culinary talent.
Located next to the huge, Silverspot Cinema, Hawkers presents a simple modern face with side patio. But inside, you’ll find a bright, colorful and kitschy interior replete with a showcase bar in the center, booths to the right and tables in back with the open kitchen. Glowing neon, colorful posters and prints and bright metal chairs ring the dining space along with some cool architectural elements in the eclectic space. It’s a panoply of Asian-inspired nostalgia, decor and cool. Hawkers food menu is focused on bites and small plates from $5 to $12 along with noodles, rice and more. True to their name, Hawkers has food options and flavors across the Asian continent, from Singapore to China, Japan, Malaysia and more. A good selection for beers, wines, sake and island-type cocktails gives you some tasty adult beverages to pair your small plates with. Instinctively, I think beer or sake would be a great match for this type of flavorful cuisine.
After two visits I can say that Hawkers’ food menu is excellent overall but the roti canai is a must-try! This savory and layered fried pancake is served up with a powerful curry sauce that will blow away your taste-buds. Somehow they manage to make their roti canai both flaky and non-greasy which is a rare combination. Tear off a piece of the pancake, dip it into the curry and bam, a taste sensation hits your tongue.
The salt and pepper ribs are a twist on my usual favorite, salt and pepper pork chops but this dish holds its own. Three meaty ribs, dry-fried and covered with grilled onion bits, garlic and sliced jalapenos offers some savory meatiness with a hint of heat, yum. And don’t miss the chili crab, a fried soft-shell crab covered in an umami-laded brown sauce. Served up with some wok-fried tomatoes to cut away the richness and a fried bao for dipping into that delicious, thick sauce. Chili crab is a Singaporean favorite and the first time I’ve tried it, super tasty!
For a main dish the yaki udon is super satisfying. While I typically eat udon noodles in a broth or soup, these thick noodles are stir-fried with sliced chicken, egg, scallions and sprouts for a satisfying and toothsome bite. The portion size is on the smaller size (since it’s only $10) but this dish is wonderful and filling. Hawkers also offers up a smattering of sweets and desserts but I’d rather focus on the savory instead.
Service at Hawkers has been excellent during my two visits and during this current pandemic, you can call in an order for pick-up, do a delivery app or dine-in socially distanced. They are spreading patrons about their large, open dining room and there are plexiglass dividers between some tables. Overall they are holding up well under tough conditions and I do feel that street food like this, deserves to be eaten straight out of that kitchen once it hits your table.
While Hawkers Asian Street Food had the unfortunate luck to open right before the pandemic closures, I’m relatively certain they are here for the long run! Delicious pan-Asian fare in a raucous environment, the food is super-charged with flavor that all of us can appreciate. Toss in the great prices and you’ve got a deal for family or date night! Even with the 30 minute drive for me from Raleigh, I’m already looking forward to visit #3 and exploring more off of their menu. So hey, don’t forget this new hidden gem in University Place. Their menu is the real Asian deal and cooked with some talent, you don’t want to miss it even while you’re sheltering in place, bon appetit!