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An American Hawker Experience: A Review and Reflection on NYC’s Urban Hawker

It sounds like something out of a movie, but here it goes.

 Girl is walking along 50th Street, thinking about hawker center food out of pure nostalgia. Girl sees a random QR code for something called Urban Hawker – what is supposedly pitched on the poster as a ‘modern, New York-based Singaporean hawker center,’ scans said QR code, and then realizes that a facet of unique Southeast Asian culture is coming to the States at last.

So, naturally, like a sane person and as a child of the diaspora who hasn’t seen her mother’s homeland in over a decade due to travel complications and the obvious COVID factor, I began stalking Urban Hawker’s account until they formally opened on September 28th in Midtown, near the hustle and bustle of Rockefeller Center. Momentarily, I was afraid their modernized, non-open air format and stalls would be lacking – but after trying a variety of foods that included some of the most authentic chili sambal I’ve ever tasted, I can safely say this one’s for the tourist guide – and history – books.

Long live the hawker center.

As a communal invention, hawker centers are open-air food centers that exist across Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, but we’ll be focusing on Singapore and Malaysia for the mere sake of brevity. To give a quick rundown, the UNESCO calls said centers, “‘community dining rooms’…where people from diverse backgrounds gather and share the experience of dining over breakfast, lunch and dinner.” And any Singaporean can tell you hawker culture is a deeply-ingrained facet of city life: living on a small island constantly meshing a blend of different ethnicities and races in a manner not unlike that of a hodgepodge melting pot – sometimes, admittedly, a deeply confused one that’s had squabbles and deep-rooted racial tensions in the 60’s and 70’s  – means that the culture is essential. Where else can you get seven dollar Hainanese chicken rice and Nyonyan laksa, two dishes from two different places separated by thousands of miles apart, all in one place?


Various examples of Urban Hawker’s street food, including signature nasi lemak, chicken rice, and laksa. Photographed by Stefano Giovanni.

When I walked in, I immediately noticed the difference between Urban Hawker’s pure existence and a traditional hawker center. Because this is New York, having a traditional center, which would involve a dizzying array of food stalls all packed together, extending for miles on end with the smell of smoke in the air, was out of the question.

But never fear, reader. The second you can step in – and, by the way, it’s always packed, full of people almost stepping on your feet just like in a real hawker center! – a thousand scents hit you at once. Urban Hawker displays a total of eleven hawkers and eateries, with some familiar faces and fresh newcomers. There’s Kopifellas, a traditional kopi, or coffee, and boba shop. Mamak’s Corner, who offers Indian-Singaporean cuisine, and Padi D’NYC, who offer no-fuss rice bowls and noodle soups like soto ayam, were two of my new favorites. And lest we forget, Lady Wong, who also conveniently has a store approximately eleven minutes from the NYU campus – and is a student favorite among those that know the Southeast Asian bakery, and a personal favorite of mine and my friends.


12 Street Foods To Try at Urban Hawker in Midtown - Eater NY
Chicken rice from Hainan Jones, another signature Singaporean dish.

Padi D’NYC had run out of their signature dish, the rendang beef curry, by the time I got there after opening day, but I was able to get a nasi pendang set with ayam goreng curry, and snatched a quick iced Milo and kaya butter toast from Kopifellas. I can tell any prospective visitors now that the food is definitely authentic: the nasi padang set, an aromatic rice dish with plenty of sides like curry chicken, fresh sambal chili with eggs, and spicy green vegetable relish, tasted entirely homemade. Kopifellas’ kaya butter toast, a traditional street toast topped with coconut jam and sweet butter, was a nostalgic favorite of mine, and the Milo was – well, think iced Nesquik, or a iced non-caffeinated cocoa drink. For dinner, a quick takeout chicken rice from Hainan Jones – aromatic and perfectly spiced all at once.

After managing to get the last hazelnut tartine cake slice and a pandan cake slice from Lady Wong for dessert, both of which were just sugary enough to satisfy my dessert cravings, I played amateur journalist and inspected my surroundings once more. No smoke. No clear skies above. Also, it was literally raining then and I don’t think an open-air setup would’ve worked on an extremely dull Thursday. 

Admittedly as I have mentioned before, if you’re looking for a more traditional experience, Urban Hawker is was a big departure from what a traditional hawker center is considered to be. And although Singapore’s very own hawker centers have undergone problems – from being gentrified into food courts because of increasing affluences, and hiked up property rental prices for stalls – it is impossible to not feel a sense of pride that a bit of the city’s traditional culture is being preserved, even if it is an entire ocean away.

But don’t worry, reader. Although Urban Hawker might be far more well-ventilated than the traditional hawker center, you’ll still have to fight for a table to sit down at.

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