The pan-Asian restaurant Hawkers (https://eathawkers.com/) started as a small, hip, industrial-looking modern space on Mills Avenue, in what may be Orlando’s best neighborhood for dining out, Mills 50. Since 2011, it has expanded into ten locations in multiple states, and for good reason: it’s terrific. We’ve gone countless times since it opened, almost always to that original location.
Hawkers specializes in diverse street food specialties from China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Korea, and more. Portions are relatively small, so it’s a great place to go with a group and share lots of dishes. And very few items on the menu are over $10, so you don’t have to worry too much or feel too guilty ordering more than one dish to sample new things.
Hawkers is a real treasure, and it has emerged as one of my favorite restaurants to bring out-of-town visitors — a perfect distillation of Orlando’s multicultural culinary scene, especially its Asian influences. It has impressed good friends from far and wide when they come to visit, and in the meantime, it has become a safe, reliable place to bring my wife when one or both of us have a hard time deciding what sounds best. If you want something healthy or heavy, meaty or veggie, cool or spicy, noodles or rice, soups or salads, and now even a sweet treat of a brunch, Hawkers will have something you like.
For my most recent visit, I caught up with an old friend with connections to my old Miami friend group, who I then got to know better while we both studied in Gainesville. I hadn’t seen him since 2006, which is insane. In that time, we both met amazing women and got married, and he had kids. It’s crazy! Life happens. He happened to be in Orlando for work that day and looked me up, hoping to meet for dinner and remembering I’m the guy who knows where to eat around here. I was so glad to catch up with my old friend, and I knew Hawkers would be the perfect place to get together. I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t amazed and astonished by it.
For this dinner, I started us out with an order of roti canai, which are buttery, flaky Malaysian flatbreads. Think about a really good, fresh, fluffy flour tortilla getting it on with a layer you peel off a delicate French croissant, and you’ll come close to the glory and grandeur of a Malaysian roti. An order of a single roti with a cup of curry sauce for dipping is $3, and each additional roti costs $1.50. Count on ordering at least one roti for everyone in your party, and I guarantee you’ll want more. Even people with the most unadventurous palates will love these, although those people might want to forego the curry sauce. If you have kids, they will love these things too.
I also requested an order of Korean twice-fried chicken wings ($8), which are my favorite wings anywhere, ever. My wife agrees, and so does my best food friend (BFF) who lives in Miami. And now, so does this old friend. These are huge wings, with the thickest, crispiest breading, slathered in a sticky, sweet, spicy, garlicky gochujang sauce and topped with crushed peanuts, sesame seeds, and fresh cilantro. An order of five wings costs $8, and my friend liked them so much, he ordered more.
These wings made my Orlando Weekly list of five favorite dishes of 2017. They are perfect in every way. They’re thick, meaty, juicy, crunchy, sweet (but not too sweet), and spicy (but definitely not too spicy). I hate the tiny, dry, burnt-to-a-crisp sports bar wings that too many restaurants and bars serve, slathered in oily hot sauce designed to burn on the way in and the way out. To me, there’s no point to even eating wings like that. They’re just sad. These Korean twice-fried wings are the opposite: pure happiness.
Next up were the chicka-rones ($6), crispy fried chicken skins tossed in jerk seasoning. The menu says these are Filipino-style. I loved them, especially as a nice alternative to pork rinds (AKA chicharrones, hence the clever name of this dish), which can sometimes be too hard to bite through, or so crunchy they can shred the inside of your mouth. For the first time ever, I recently fried up my own chicken skins at home into a crispy Jewish delicacy called gribenes, and rendered the fat (schmaltz) for cooking with later. Fried chicken skins are so much lighter and less oppressive-feeling than pork rinds, so I’m definitely a convert.
My friend was craving something spicy, so he went with a dish I had never tried before: Kin’s prawn mee ($9), a hot noodle soup with spicy prawn broth, shrimp, chicken, wheat noodles, hard-boiled egg, yow choy (Chinese greens), bean sprouts, and fried shallots. He was sweating, but he loved it. I might order this in the future, since he was so enthusiastic about it.
And I also picked a new noodle dish, knowing those are always safe bets. This was the Yaki udon ($8.50): thick and chewy udon noodles (always a favorite), chicken, eggs, onions, spring onions, and carrots. It comes with bean sprouts too, but I am not the biggest fan, so I asked them to hold the bean sprouts — never a problem at Hawkers. It had pretty mild heat, but it was pleasant. We both enjoyed this one, and I’d totally order it again. In the past, I have loved so many of Hawkers’ noodle dishes: curry-seasoned Singapore mei fun with chicken and shrimp, beef haw fun (with wide, flat noodles, similar to the beef chow fun I order at almost every Chinese restaurant that offers it), char kway teow, and spicy pad Thai. Now I’m adding the Yaki udon to this all-star lineup. The only problem in the future is what to choose: an old favorite or an exciting new possibility. You can’t go wrong either way, trust me.
Anyway, I parted ways with my old friend after dinner, determined to keep in touch better and not let thirteen more years go by. He seemed to really enjoy the restaurant and our menu selections, which I totally expected, but the last thing I ever want to do is recommend something that disappoints, staunch Saboscrivner subscribers included. A bad meal always depresses me, because not only is it a bad meal, but there’s the opportunity cost of not being able to enjoy a good meal in its place. I can safely say that Hawkers is a crowd-pleaser, and if you haven’t given it a chance yet, you won’t be sorry.
In fact, to sweeten the deal, Hawkers started serving brunch recently, but only on weekends and only at their newer, larger location in Windemere, much further from where we live. People’s photos of the new menu items looked enticing, so my wife and I recently took the trip out there, a few weeks after they rolled out the brunch menu, figuring they would have time to work out any potential bugs. Though we were one of the first parties to arrive when the restaurant opened that morning, it took an extraordinarily long time for us to get seated. I normally don’t remark on things like this on my blog, but it seemed weird, given that the restaurant was completely empty after just opening for business, with lots of staff available. We couldn’t help but be amused by one woman who (politely and diplomatically) complained about the delay before leaving. My wife expressed a gesture of solidarity with her as she walked out, and then I figured we were going to get lousy service and would end up feeling like chumps. But once we finally got seated, the service improved exponentially, and it was worth the wait.
I’m a huge Wu-Tang Clan fan, so I marked out when I saw this brunch item called Hash Rules Everything Around Me. How could I not order that? Dolla’ dolla’ bill, y’all! The dish included fried pork belly, crisp tater tots, bell peppers, and onions, topped with an egg fried over easy, smothered in curry gravy. Everything about this dish worked for me, with the runny richness of the egg cascading down and melding with the spicy gravy, forming a killer sauce for those tots. They were the best tots I’ve ever had, and the pork belly was everything I love about pork belly — a crispy (but not crunchy) exterior, giving way to smooth, unctious, yielding deliciousness.
Xiao long bao, AKA soup dumplings! On the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, people had been hyping these up for years and bemoaning their absence in Orlando before they popped up on a few local restaurants’ menus recently. Hawkers was the first or second to offer these steamed classics in town.
Frankly, I think they’re kind of messy to eat, and dare I say it — more trouble than they’re worth. If you don’t eat the whole thing in one bite, the broth leaks out, and if you do eat the whole thing in one bite, you can burn a layer of skin out of your mouth.
Think about how perfect a pizza is, and then consider the calzone — everything you love about a pizza, but the inverse. Not bad, per se, but inside out and a little awkward to eat. Now think about a bowl of good wonton soup. Are you envisioning it? So warm and comforting! Well, the xiao long bao is the calzone version of wonton soup, with pork, crab, and broth inside the wonton, each soup dumpling its own little microcosm.
Even for brunch, we couldn’t go to Hawkers and not order the twice-fried Korean chicken wings. Yes, don’t worry — many of your regular favorites are still available on the brunch menu. Check the website to confirm, though! These wings were as sticky, sweet, and spicy as usual.
This was a brunch dish that might as well have been on the dessert menu: the Hong Kong bubble waffle, stuffed with whipped cream, fresh lemon custard, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries. If you’ve never had a bubble waffle, remedy that. It is sweet and eggy with the lightest, crispiest outer shell, but so soft and fluffy inside. This one got soggy and cool quickly due to the whipped cream, but was still tasty.
I can see bubble waffles being a very satisfying street food, especially if you just get handed a warm waffle and eat it by tearing bubbles off or just biting off a bubble at a time. The whipped cream and especially the lemon custard would have been better as dips for the waffle itself, rather than being served inside of it to make the whole thing soggy.
And this sweet brunch dish (pretty much another dessert) was called Stacks on Stacks: Japanese souffle pancakes, so trendy and Instagrammable. The pancakes were tall, thick, and very jiggly and fluffy, served with bananas, Nutella, whipped cream, and drizzled with a housemade sesame peanut sauce. (Fo’ drizzle.) I didn’t think this was that fantastic. The pancakes were kind of doughy and a little dry, even with all the toppings. I honestly prefer IHOP and Cracker Barrel pancakes, and I’m not that big on Nutella, sesame, or peanuts. This dish just wasn’t for me, but I suspect many of my regular readers and “brunch squad” types will love it.
I always order a Vietnamese iced coffee at Hawkers, especially if I’m going to have anything spicy. It’s one of the only coffee drinks I’ll drink, rich and sweet with condensed milk. I like my coffee like I like my women: rich and sweet with condensed milk, and ready to jolt me awake. That morning, my wife ordered a “mocktail” called the Tang Dynasty, with tangy pineapple juice, orange juice, tamarind, salt, and ginger ale.
I’m generally not a brunch fan — my regular readers know I consider it a disappointing ripoff of a meal, especially since neither of us drink — but I’m glad we experienced the new brunch at Hawkers once. I don’t think we’ll rush back, but mostly because the Windemere location is quite far from us. We’re still huge fans of the tried-and-true original location for lunch and dinner, especially those Korean twice-fried wings, the roti canai, and all those noodles. And if you come to visit me from a town that doesn’t have a Hawkers location yet, we might just end up there. So far, all the friends I’ve dragged there have emerged huge fans, so watch out!