From Bulgogi Beef Skewers to Jo-Hē Bag O’ Donuts, here’s what to order at Hawkers

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Photo by Jessica Swannie
Hawkers Asian Street Fare

Charlotte offers a bounty of unique dining selections, but the city will finally host a spot where patrons can step into an experience designed to recall the ambiance associated with Asian street food.

Hawkers, an Orlando-based restaurant known for its Asian street fare, will open in the Design Center on Wednesday. Expect a distinctive space (almost 5,000 square feet) with an indoor-outdoor bar adorned with local art, a tiki cocktail menu and dishes prepared with family recipes.

The restaurant was originally founded by four friends who traveled the world to create an eclectic dining experience with passed-down recipes. In an effort to “redefine ‘eating Asian’ in the States,” the concept grew into an experience named for the street vendors, called “hawkers” who incorporate local ingredients into their dishes.

The Ambiance

Co-founder and culinary director Allen Lo said he and co-founders (Kaleb Harrell, Kin Ho, and Wayne Yung) considered locations in Plaza Midwood and NoDa, but settled on the Design Center of the Carolinas after falling in love with the neighborhood.

Why bring the Orlando-based chain here? “Charlotte is a great booming city. It’s growing, and we wanted to be a part of it,” Lo said, adding that it’s the most exciting location they’ve ever had.

You’ll see local touches throughout the space, the most prominent being two murals by Southern Tiger Collective’s Alex DeLarge. You may recognize his style — he and local artist Dustin Moates created the Avengers artwork on the side of Seventh Sin Tattoo on Central Avenue.

[Related: 15 of Charlotte’s Newest Murals and the meanings behind them]

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Mural by Alex DeLarge

Over 1,000 vibrant posters, individually-printed and adhered to the wall, show the love and detail that went into creating the space. You’ll see nods to the Queen City in the posters, with queens and crowns speckled throughout.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Hand-adhered posters will feature references to Charlotte.

Lighting plays a large role in bringing the space to life. Neons paint the restaurant in a fluorescent glow, and bulbs suspended in birdcages and beneath woks hanging from the ceiling create an ambiance reminiscent of the streets of Asia. Asian comic book wallpaper in the bathrooms pull the theme into each corner of the space.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Birdcage lights recreate the Asian street feel

Look for easter eggs that pay homage to the restaurant’s founders: a cluster of four baseball cards and a sign with each of their names in Chinese.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Sign with founders’ names in Chinese

The bar will serve local craft beer, but it’s the first location to have a new cocktail program featuring an array of carefully-developed tiki drinks.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
The bar at Hawkers

The “‘78 Jungle Bird” came highly-recommended by co-founder and CEO Kaleb Harrell, who shared that it was originally developed in Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s. It’s prepared with Cruzan Black Strap rum, Campari, pineapple, and lime juice, served in a tiki glass with the cutest little booty.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
“‘78 Jungle Bird” cocktail ($11)

The “Tiki, Do You Love Me”  is also worth a try, crafted with pineapple-infused rum, pineapple shrub, lemon juice, serrano-infused agave, and peach nectar. Asian-inspired cocktails, sake, and Japanese whiskey are available as well.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
“Tiki, Do You Love Me” cocktail ($11)

The Food

Scents of street food dishes waft from the open kitchen, highlighted by a neon sign that translates to “open rice” in Chinese, but means “Hey, let’s eat!” Guests will be able to view the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, much like hungry travelers browsing Asian street food stalls would see and feel the energy of the hawkers. Each member of the kitchen staff undergoes a 12-week training program in Orlando to learn the space, which is set up for traditional Asian-style cooking.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
“Hey, let’s eat!”

Newspaper artwork decorates each table. This particular detail was important to Lo, who said it reminded him of being a kid in Malaysia, where food would be served on newspaper. “It’s a play on [the newspaper] to tell that story,” he remarks.

Scratch-made dishes are based on family recipes and can be customized for allergies and dietary restrictions. Here’s what to try:

Small Plates

Our waitress recommended starting with their most popular small plate, the Roti Canai, a Malaysian flatbread served with a side of signature curry sauce. Or, as I like to call it, magical bread with life-changing sauce.

[Related: An Asian street fare restaurant is coming to South end and we’re already craving these 10 menu items]

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Roti Canai ($4)

Next up: Lettuce Wraps (wok-seared shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, carrots, bean curd, garlic, ginger, rice sticks). At first I opted for the beef, but our waitress recommended the roast duck. I went in thinking I didn’t like duck, and after one bite, knew I would fight for the last.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Roast Duck Lettuce Wraps ($7.50)

To continue to delve further into the Asian street ambiance, we sampled Street Skewers. Cooked over a 1000-degree wood-burning grill, these beef skewers are best enjoyed with a bite of spicy kimchi. Bulgogi chicken, satay chicken and lemongrass pork are also available.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Bulgogi Beef Skewers ($9)

Before a trip to Hawkers, I’d never had Steamed Baos — and boy, was I missing out. These two steamed buns come with a choice of irresistible pork belly, roast duck, or Seoul hot chicken.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Seoul Hot Chicken Steamed Baos ($7.50)

Entrees

If you manage to make it through the small plates menu with room for more food, the larger plates are just as impressive. This menu offers salads, noodle soups, rice, and noodles. We opted for the selections marked by the “family recipe” symbol (look for symbols denoting new dishes, dishes with heat, and veggie friendly options as well).

Crispy egg noodles, pork, shiitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, spring onions, and savory soy sauce color the Crispy Canton dish, which is one of Hawkers’ new recipes.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Crispy Canton ($9.50)

Chee Cheng’s Char Kway Teow tastes as satisfying as when you almost pronounce the name correctly, filled with rice noodles, shrimp, chicken, eggs, spring onions, and bean sprouts.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Chee Cheng’s Char Kway Teow ($8.50)

Dessert

I was told to save room for dessert, and somehow, I managed to preserve a sliver of space to peruse the sweets menu.

The Jo-Hē Bag O’ Donuts piqued my interest, as anything advertised as a bag of donuts promises the world. These powdered delights are served warm the cutest little brown bag. Which is perfect to take them to go, assuming they last that long.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Jo-Hē Bag O’ Donuts ($4)

Couldn’t get enough of the Roti Canai? Opt for the Cinnamon Roti à la Mode. Warm, rich cinnamon sits in the center of the flatbread, served with a side of ice cream topped with more cinnamon. Yes, please.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Roti à la Mode ($6.50)

Hawkers’ versatile menu, unique ambiance and fair prices make it the ideal spot for a date night or family outing. My advice: venture outside of your comfort zone — and save room for dessert.

Photo by Jessica Swannie
Hawkers Asian Street Fare

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