Some people get excited each time New York City puts in a bid to host the Olympics. Not me. I think, “Who needs it?” The attention the games bring may be helpful for Beijing, Tokyo, Paris, Los Angeles and other small, easily overlooked cities. But all I can think about is the traffic.
One plan I did support was the idea of building a sort of Olympic Village in Manhattan where top competitors from around the world could show off their speed and grace before cheering spectators. I refer, of course, to Bourdain Market, a gargantuan food hall that would have been modeled on the hawker centers of Singapore. Anthony Bourdain was going to lead the project, a decathlon of eating and drinking that was to be set on a pier on the Hudson River, anchored by stalls cooking 100 of his favorite street foods. I know sports fans who thrill to Olympic golf, but eating Hanoi-style bun cha, Ensenadan seafood tostadas and Iranian dizi under one roof is my idea of a gold-medal event.
Mr. Bourdain’s grand concept had stalled before he took his own life in 2018. A piece of the idea was then picked up by his collaborator in the market, KF Seetoh, a journalist and entrepreneur who is an unflagging champion of Singaporean hawker food. In September, Mr. Seetoh and the Urbanspace food hall company finally opened what is now called Urban Hawker, in Midtown.
The scope has narrowed dramatically. Instead of Mr. Bourdain’s enormous global bazaar, we have an indoor passageway with 17 food and drink vendors focused entirely on Singapore. If you come in at the entrance on 51st Street, across from Le Bernardin, the first thing you’ll hit will be the Sling Bar. You can lean there for a minute and mull your strategy with a Gin Pahit, laced with licorice, pink with bitters and favored in the colonial era by British officers in Malaysia.
From there, you can wade forward to order from the hawkers, most of whom relocated from Asia to New York for the market. Tote your tray to an empty table, if you can find one. (Better yet, ask the bartender at the Sling Bar to save your seat while you do your hunting and gathering.) Finally, when you reach the 50th Street side, you can end your meal at Kopifellas with a cup of milk tea or kopi, dark-roasted coffee brewed in a sock and poured in a long, thin rope from pot to cup — unless you have come for breakfast. In that case you should proceed directly to Kopifellas, where in addition to coffee or tea you will almost certainly want toast spread with kaya, a coconut curd that looks like something your mother rubbed on your chest when you had a cold and tastes like paradise.
Bouncing around the stalls like a pinball, you get an overview of Singaporean food unlike any you’ll find in a restaurant. The country’s most recognized dishes are there, above all Hainanese chicken rice. Though Urban Hawker isn’t knotted with lines now the way it was last fall, you can almost always find at least a few people waiting to order chicken rice at Hainan Jones. The chicken most of them wait for is not the fried or roasted, though both are good, but the poached. It is fleshier, softer, more voluptuous than you’d think boiled poultry could be.
Other stalls cook dishes that started out somewhere else but have adapted to or been adopted by Singapore. Clove-scented biryanis and other Indian dishes are sold at Mamak’s Corner. Lontong, a dense rice stick that may well have been put on earth to absorb sauces and soups, comes in a magnificently rich Malaysian coconut stew at Padi d’NYC.
Buying all these dishes from individual hawkers helps you appreciate and reckon with Singapore’s complexity and diversity in a way that simply ordering them from a single restaurant would not. The stalls preserve and spotlight the separate origins of the dishes.
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What separates Urban Hawker from all the other food halls in New York is that it puts the cooks front and center. There are easier ways to open a food court than relocating hawkers to another continent, but these hawkers are important — they have helped keep Singapore’s food culture alive, popularizing some dishes, modernizing others to keep them current. At one point, they were in danger of being swept away in Singapore’s push to become a shiny, orderly, business-friendly global city; now their significance is recognized, at home and in Manhattan.
This is a refreshingly humane view of street food, and we have to thank Mr. Seetoh and Mr. Bourdain for it.
In theory, transferring the hawkers to New York should have guaranteed that the flavors transferred, too. In practice, some did and some did not.
Alan Choong, a young hot shot of the Singaporean hawker scene, runs Prawnaholic Collections. The specialty is prawn noodle soup; the magnificent broth has a lustrous, gliding thickness that may remind you of tonkotsu ramen spiked with shrimp bisque. (Both pork bones and prawn shells go into the stockpot.) It would be a mistake, though, to see Prawnaholic Collections as strictly a soup shop. The stir-fried noodles in its Hokkien mee are tense and smoky from the fiery heat of the wok. Char kway teow is slick with oyster sauce and soy, but the noodles stay lively and taut. But I think Prawnaholic’s masterpiece may be the wok-cooked omelet studded with juicy oysters.
A No. 1 at Mr. Fried Rice, the “Singapore signature” fried rice, is a headfirst dive into Southeast Asian aromas; dried baby shrimp and invisible shrimp paste perfume the rice along with sweet and tangy bits of fermented Chinese sausage. There are eight other ways to order fried rice; I’m partial to the No. 5, topped with fried chicken that tastes of pungent shrimp paste. Still, it is no match for the blitz of flavors in the No. 1.
The Hainanese curry rice with a craggy golden chicken cutlet from Smokin’ Joe would make a respectable lunch, although it is overshadowed, mysteriously, by the same vendor’s fish and chips. To be accurate, the fries are nothing special; the overshadowing is done by the fried fish, which under its breaded shell is juicy and sweet, with a suggestion of spice in the background.
Fans of the East Village sweet shop Lady Wong won’t be surprised that its stall inside Urban Hawker is one of the market’s high points. Its bite-size kuih, rice cakes in botanical flavors like rose and pandan stacked up in one colorful layer after another, look like miniature flags from countries that haven’t been discovered yet. The savory pies and pockets would be more tempting if Lady Wong had a way of reheating them that didn’t make their crusts go limp.
Besides its haunting lontong, Padi makes a compelling beef rendang, coated in a rough, herbaceous paste that hums with fresh ginger. And of course, there is the chicken rice at Hainan Jones.
A lot of the other dishes at Urban Hawker seem to be only about 80 or 90 percent there. The ingredients are generally good. Almost everything is fresh and cooked to order — at most stalls you wait five or 10 minutes for your order. You don’t see any corners being cut. But often, something seems to be missing. I hoped for more spice in Wok & Staple’s chili crab, one of the most expensive things in the market. (Mine was nearly $60, three or four times the price of most items.) At other times I wanted salt, although I’m not sure that was always the right answer.
Adjusting to ingredients halfway around the world is no easy thing. Wok & Staple is serving Dungeness crab, which is almost nothing like the mud crabs used in Singapore. I can’t help thinking that Mr. Bourdain could have encouraged the hawkers to find flavors that were true to the originals. Mr. Seetoh might still be able to do this; he certainly knows how these dishes are supposed to taste.
As it is, Urban Hawker is a fascinating window into Singaporean culture. But it could be more. It could be amazing.
135 West 50th Street (Seventh Avenue), Midtown; urbanhawker.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner; hours vary from stall to stall.