Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Dining in NYC: Urban Hawker

Once upon a time, Anthony Bourdain planned to bring a Singapore-style hawker market to New York City's Pier 57, near Chelsea Market and the Meatpacking District. It would have dozens of vendors of authentic Singaporean food, which comprises Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, and Indonesian cuisines. Sadly, Bourdain died in 2018, before he was able to realize his vision. His original partner in the enterprise, KF Seetoh--a Singaporean food critic and television personality who made appearances in Bourdain's various travel programs--finally brought the market to life in 2022, but on a much smaller scale. Rather than a hundred or so vendors on a pier, there are seventeen, and the venue, one of several food courts run by an outfit called Urbanspace, is located near Rockefeller Center. Eleven of Urban Hawker's purveyors came from Singapore; the remaining six are local, and on a recent trip to NY, my friend Daisy and I tried as many as we could.

Six of 17 is pretty good for one evening, huh?

Unlike some other of the city's food courts/markets, Urban Hawker has a good amount of space to dine-in. We chose to park ourselves at the far end of The Sling Bar. Singapore Slings in hand, we started our feast with an order of Hainanese chicken rice from Hainan Jones

Hainanese chicken rice from Hainan Jones
Hainanese chicken rice is the national dish of Singapore, so it was a must-try. When properly made, the chicken is meltingly tender and juicy. It might appear poached, but Hainanese chicken is cooked in the residual heat of boiled liquid, rather than with constant heat. A whole chicken is submerged in seasoned water that has been brought to a boil. Once the water, with chicken, comes back to a boil, a lid is placed on the pot and the heat is turned off. The chicken stays in the water for 45 minutes or so. The meat is chilled, then sliced and served with garlicky chicken fat rice and both a sweet soy sauce and a spicy chili sauce. The dish is simple and complex at the same time. 

Having never eaten Hainanese chicken rice before, I had nothing with which to compare the version from Hainan Jones. But as a stand-alone dish, it was beautiful. The chicken was juicy and flavorful and the rice was schmaltzy. The accompanying cup of broth, to sip or use as a dip, was richly flavored. The tiny cups of sweet soy and chili sauce were both tasty, but I found myself gobbling down the chicken without needing to dip it into other flavors. The accompanying Chinese broccoli was good, but I would have preferred it to be hot. 

Singapore Sling from The Sling Bar
Once the chicken was demolished, we went to work on an order of pineapple fried rice from Mr Fried Rice. I adore fried rice, but haven't had a good version of it since I was a kid. My Dad liked a tiny carry-out on Cold Spring Lane called Chung's, where we bought roast pork fried rice by the quart and ate it out of the container on the way home from the restaurant. I don't remember anything else from Chung's, but the rice was great, lightly sticky, just greasy enough, and full of porky flavor. 

pineapple fried rice from Mr Fried Rice
I was happy to find that the rice from Mr Fried Rice had a similar texture and porky essence. It was studded with whole shrimp and tiny pieces of the most tender squid I have ever eaten, garnished with a generous dusting of pork floss (imagine cotton candy made with dried pork), and a small pile of roasty cashews. There were also small nuggets of pineapple, of course, but not enough of it to make the dish overly sweet. I couldn't stop eating it.

Singapore Chili Crab from Wok & Staple
We also had chili crab, Singapore's second favorite dish. I have always been under the impression that chili crab was pretty spicy. This one was only mildly so. The sauce seemed to be a combination of ketchup and bottled sweet chili sauce (like one might serve with spring rolls). I thought it was overly sweet and too gelatinous in texture. The crab was Dungeness, which I suppose is fine if you're not from Maryland and used to blue crab. I didn't find it to be especially meaty, despite the vast size of the creature. What I did like about this dish was that it came with disposable gloves that made it fairly easy to eat. There were also lobster crackers to break open the legs, but they're only so useful when the crab shells soften in sauce and are not quite the right diameter to fit the cracker. 

I suppose it sounds like I hated this dish. Not so. It was unusual and one of the dishes I've always wanted to try. I think the expectations I set for it were probably a little too high.

murtabak - flatbread with beef filling from Mamak's Corner
Finally, we had murtabak, a ghee-laden flaky flatbread filled with beef, egg, and red onion, and griddled until crisp. It was served with a cup of a liquidy lentil curry to use as a dip. It was so delicious, and the switch to flavors characteristic of Indian food was a welcome change, but I was SO FULL at this point that I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I might have had we ordered it earlier in the meal. Still, we polished it off without complaint.

We had originally planned to finish off the meal with dessert from Lady Wong, a local vendor that specializes in cakes with flavors like mango and calamansi, and the gelatinous "cake" known as kuih. The texture of kuih, actually a firm custard, is hard to describe. It's smooth, cool, and bouncy, and quite delicious if fresh and well-made. My favorite has a layer of coconut sticky rice at the bottom. At this point, however, I couldn't fit another mouthful, so we passed on eating dessert at Urban Hawker. (I did pick up some kuih to snack on the next day.)

While I think we gorged ourselves like the champion eaters we are, there are many other vendors at Urban Hawker that need to be explored. I want some laksa from Daisy's Dream, a Roti John from Ashes Burnnit, stuffed bean curd from Yum Yubu...all of it! 

Urban Hawker
135 W 50th St,
New York, NY 10020

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