Texas’ first Hawkers Asian Street Food restaurant is expected to open in Deep Ellum in November 2021. The restaurant is inspired by four friends’ regular trips to Asia over the past 15 years, where they’d eat street food in countries like Malaysia, Thailand and China.
“We really wanted to transport people to what it’s like to eat on the streets of Asia,” says Kaleb Harrell, CEO and co-founder. “And you don’t have to buy a $2,000 [plane] ticket.”
Founders Kin Ho, Allen Lo, Wayne Yung and Harrell opened the first Hawkers in their home of Orlando, Fla., in 2011. The company has grown to 11 restaurants so far. The restaurant at 2800 Main Street in Deep Ellum, the former Curtain Club, is the only Hawkers planned in Texas right now.
“We really love it when we can go into the heart of the community, where people are cultured and have an appreciation for a new culture and somewhat of an adventurous palate,” the CEO says. He likes the vibrancy and artistic nature of Deep Ellum.
Hawkers’ menu draws from many countries in Asia, and some of the recipes come from two co-founders’ family members, who still live in Hong Kong and in Alor Setar (which is in Kedah, Malaysia). The name Hawkers refers to the word for street vendors selling food. “Hawker culture” dates back to the 1800s in Singapore, says National Geographic.
The most popular dish at the existing restaurants is roti canai, a Malaysian flatbread served with curry dipping sauce.
The menu includes what Harrell describes as Asian dishes familiar to an American audience, like pad Thai. The sauce is cooked for eight hours, and the recipe is similar to the recipe from the one at their favorite restaurant in Phuket, Thailand. He assents that Asian cuisine varies depending on the region.
“I would say street food in Asia is very much like barbecue in the states. Different regions represent it a little bit differently,” he says. “[And] people are very passionate about their region’s representation of the dish. If you go to Penang [in Malaysia], their curry laksa is the best curry laksa, and don’t tell them any different.”
Curry laksa is one of Hawkers’ more popular dishes. It’s a coconut-curry soup with shrimp, fried tofu puffs and noodles. Harrell calls it “a staple comfort food” he has enjoyed many times on the streets of Malaysia.
The menu also includes green papaya and shrimp, Sichuan wontons, udon noodles and Korean wings.
The Vietnamese coffee is made in homage to its home country. At Hawkers, they blend chicory coffee with Cafe du Monde beans, slow filter it through a phin, then mix the muddy liquid with condensed milk and evaporated milk. It is a popular order, and Hawkers will likely use a large-format phin that can slow-drip Vietnamese coffee in batches of six or eight drinks.
Harrell says they are “dedicated to authenticity” — but there are a few limits. Brand chef and co-founder Lo would rather use fresh lemongrass in his dishes, but it’s difficult to get in the United States unless it’s frozen. Also, some of the techniques used by street vendors don’t translate to restaurant food, as Harrell and his friends learned during their travels.
He tells of one instance where a Malaysian chef was making a wonton noodle dish named kon lo mee, and Harrell and his business partners were enthralled by the flavor.
“We’re asking him, ‘What’s your secret?’ … And he says when you knead the dough, you have to get your elbow in there. All the sweat from [his] elbow gets into the dough.”
Harrell laughs. “So we had to alter that recipe a little bit.”
Beyond the printed menu, Hawkers plans on selling limited-time-only dishes for more adventurous eaters, like grilled chicken heart.
“We try to make sure we have an offering for everyone,” he says.
Hawkers Asian Street Food is expected to open at 2800 Main St., Dallas, in November 2021.