It’s the design, openness and boldness of the Hawkers Asian Street Fare space that immediately sets it apart. Asian ads and propaganda are plastered onto the walls, set off by the glow of neon signs. Each staff member dons a different black or gray graphic tee paired with quirky socks and interesting headbands. And then there’s the menu, which encourages sharing and showcases a variety of cuisines. It’s something truly unique.
“Be disruptive. Always care. Never compromise,” says co-founder Kaleb Harrell. “That’s our mantra.”
In the foreground, there’s that familiar 2000s American pop song you used to sing in the car. You bob your head as you pick up your chopsticks. It’s symbolic of this idea of marrying what we love so much about Asian culture and combining it with American culture.
A college town like Chapel Hill understands that, Kaleb says. He and the other three founders – Kin Ho, Chee Cheng “Allen” Lo and Wayne Yung – sought those reminiscent flavors when they were college students at University of Central Florida.
“When you have a collegiate town, you get a really rich culture,” he says. “It’s not just about the education here – I mean, I can’t overlook that part of it – but when you’re exposed to more, you’re going to be more cultured, and you’re probably going to be more appreciative of something that’s a little bit outside of the box.”
The bar, for example, is front and center in the restaurant. The founders want it to be a little loud. They want it to feel like a high-energy, street-fare environment. That was the vision when the first Hawkers opened in 2011.
With drinks like “Tiki, Do You Love Me” or “That’s My Bag, Baby” – the latter served in a giant Capri Sun-like pouch, for those wanting an adult twist on a kid favorite – the cocktail menu is also a testament to ingenuity and creativity. But beware, the tiki drink gives a good, spicy serrano kick.
The food is just as original: Half the recipes come from the three other founders’ family recipes, and the other half are inspired by the foursome’s travels throughout Asia.
“Yi-Yi’s Chicken Dumplings,” filled to the brim with chicken and hand-rolled daily, are inspired by Kin’s aunt. “Yi-Yi,” which translates into “auntie” in Cantonese, was a recipe passed down for generations. Named after Allen, “Chee Cheng’s Char Kway Teow” is one of the most popular items on the menu. The dish features wok-fired shrimp, chicken, egg, veggies and rice noodles in a soy-and-pork sauce, and collects its savory flavors from the wok its cooked in. (To find other signature dishes on the menu, look for the red font.)
“[The menu] spans so many flavor profiles,” Kaleb says. “And I think that’s one of the reasons that I love sharing this menu with the world, with mainstream America. [The menu] doesn’t dilute things like General Tso’s chicken or beef with broccoli. I mean, there’s still a place for that. I love it. But I think [our menu] just kind of highlights the fact that Asia is a huge continent, and [general tastes are] hyper-focused on a couple of regions and [have] maybe missed some of the other parts of Asia that have fantastic cuisines.”