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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.