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12 Street Foods to Try at Urban Hawker in Midtown

An air of anticipation permeated Urban Hawker’s two-story, concrete-covered space when I arrived on the first day around 11am, hoping to avoid the crowds. The stalls were designed by KF Seetoh – a guidebook writer and friend of Anthony Bourdain’s who had a hand in the idea – to look like a takeaway center in Singapore, where street food is presented in an eatery.

I noticed that three of the 17 stalls were still unfinished as I frantically darted from stall to stall ordering things, then went back to pick them up for a gang of friends to try. We can sit at a choice of tables, counters and booths scattered throughout, as well as in a pocket park just across the street.

Neon signs overhead illuminate the counters, creating a carnival atmosphere throughout the venue, which runs from 50th to 51st Streets in a building located between Sixth and Seventh Avenues just northeast of Times Square. We headed for the most traditional Singaporean hawker food and secondarily visited those stalls that featured modern inventions. Here are 12 dishes to try at the new Urban Hawker.

The exterior of Urban Hawker on the opening day.

Hainan Chicken Rice at Hainan Jones

I contacted Hainan Jones, a stall run by Seetoh himself that specializes in Hainanese Chicken Rice, one of the most popular dishes from the hawkers. It originates from an island off the southern coast of China, and in New York there are now several cafes specializing in different versions of it. This display ($19) was a revelation: the braised chicken so delicately spiced, the broth-soaked rice so rich, the chile sauce so orange and nuanced, the dish was exceptional. I can eat it for lunch every day.

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Pale chicken over rice

Hainanese chicken comes with rice, pickles and a cup of broth.

Lonthong in Paddy

Next up was Padi, which originated from a full-service Malay restaurant in Singapore. It showcases one of my favorite Malaysian and Indonesian ingredients, lontong. Like creamy white dum-dum bullets, the compressed rice lozenges sit in a thick yellow chicken broth with boiled eggs and fish cake with crispy pastries on top. At $10.90, it was one of the best deals at Urban Hawker.

Yellow broth with rice cakes and boiled eggs.

Lonthong in Paddy.

Fried rice with stingray at Mr. Fried Rice

One stall, Mr. Fried Rice, specializes in multiple forms of the dish such as tom yum and salmon teriyaki. However, the Stingray Fried Rice ($17) was one of the best dishes we tried and very Singaporean – a fish wing generously covered in a dark paste bursting with sour, salty, sweet and fishy flavours.

Blackened pieces of fish over rice.

Stingray Fried Rice at Mr. Fried Rice at Urban Hawker.

White bee hoon at White Restaurant

White Restaurant originated from a restaurant that was founded as a dispensary stand in 1999. Its specialty is white bee hoon, a dish of fine rice noodles (“bee hoon”) in a light broth said to be boiled for eight hours. The dish is loaded with egg, squid and prawns and livened up with added chili sauce. (Most of the stuff we tried at Urban Hawker was well seasoned, but not as spicy as we’d hoped.)

A bowl of noodles with squid and shrimp on top.

Hun with white bee from Byala restaurant.

Murtabak and lamb biryani at Mamak’s corner

The stall that excited us the most as lunch customers began to throng the space was Mamak’s Corner, which showcases Indian food adapted to the Malay Peninsula. Everyone is probably familiar with roti canai (a flatbread with a small portion of chicken curry), but this dish represents a whole class of recipes that include murtabak ($13), roti folded around a filling of ground meat and egg, presented with a dollop of peanut sauce. The lamb biryani ($16) was also great, more like a lamb curry poured over pilaf rice, with an elusive flavor hinting at camphor. There were also dosas, but we already felt crowded.

Stuffed flatbread and curry over rice.

Murtabak (left) and lamb biryani (right) from Mamak corner.

Peanut Sauce Chicken and Roti John at Ashes Burnnit

Ashes Burnnit is a chain that specializes in burgers and other sandwiches, including a peanut sauce-slathered chicken breast ($13) that was pretty good and very filling. Roty John ($12) is also intriguing, a tire filled with shredded beef omelette and various sauces, the appearance of which scared us slightly before we tried it. It turned out to be almost impossible to eat.

A hero sandwich with egg and beef and orange dressing curled on top.

Roti john at Ashes Burnnit, Urban Hawker stall.

Sardine puff and assorted pastries at Lady Wong

We were craving sweets and Lady Wong provided them. This bakery prepares cakes and pastries with motifs of tropical fruits and Japanese, Chinese and French motifs. After enjoying his tangy and spicy sardine ($4.25), we sampled a lovely layer cake made of passion fruit and calamansi, a Philippine lime ($6.85); steamed rainbow cake, with a mochi-like jello texture ($3.25); and pandan cake ($3.25), which was a nice shade of mint green.

A hand breaks a long brown pastry in two to reveal the onion contents.

The sardine puff was one of the best things we tried.

Green Bar and Jelly Rainbow Layered Cookie/Cake.

Pandan Cake and Steamed Rainbow Cake by Lady Wong.

We left just as the hall was packed around 12:30pm, not only because curious diners had been attracted on the first day, but because the stalls were understandably slow to process orders and long queues had formed as other customers waited for their meals to be delivered .

Each stall offers 10 or more items – making the wait worse – unlike traditional Singaporean hawker stalls, which often only do one or two specialties. Minor issues will no doubt be ironed out, but even on its first day, Urban Hawker offers some of Midtown’s most interesting and sometimes delicious dining options.

A crowd stands in front of Hainan Jones' booth.

Queues form at Urban Hawker on opening day.