Outcome: Hung Jury.
Ratio decidendi: Teething issues abound during our visit on Hawker’s second day. Only positives to be found were the apam balik and goreng durian at the end of a rather pedestrian meal. Without the kind of ‘wok hei’ found at some of its peers, diners are going to leave disappointed if it continues to serve malaysian (read: small) serving sizes at Australian prices. Pick of the hawker dishes is the wat tan hor.
Salient features: Apam Balik ($6 for 2), Goreng Durian ($8), Wat Tan Hor ($12)
Scope of discovery: char kuey teow ($14), curry laksa ($12), KL hokkien mee ($14), or chian ($16), ikan bakar ($16).
Case note: Let’s start with the positives. If all Hawker did was sold apam baliks and (to a lesser extent) goreng durians, it would be a barnstorming success.
The apam balik is sort of like a folded crispy crepe that’s filled with groundnuts and buttery sweetcorn – and something that Hawker have done well to replicate from the ‘pasar malams’ of Malaysia.
Together with the goreng durian i.e. heavenly melt in your mouth ‘musang king’ durian robed in light batter – the desserts put smiles back on our faces after a rather pedestrian meal.
In terms of taste, Hawker’s noodle offerings aren’t bad by any measure – overall, they clock in at a smidge above the Sydney average in my opinion. Pick of the bunch is the wat tan hor, which excels because they’ve gotten the eggy gravy spot on and somehow managed to achieve the kind of charring in the kuey teow that was amiss in (ironically) the char kuey teow (“CKT”).
Kudos for the use of cockles in the CKT though, you can probably count with one hand the number of joints in Australia that have gone to the effort of sourcing them for their kitchens. Despite the full marks for authenticity,the renditions at Alice’s and Surry Hills Eating House remain the standard-bearers for ‘wok hei’ i.e. the transfer of the wok’s charry/smoky flavour and aroma into the dish.
Speaking to the staff I understand that efforts were focused on both the CKT and curry laksa as they were expected to be the two most recognisable/iconic and consequently popular dishes that would see heavy order flow. Opinions on our table on the curry laksa were mixed – the laksa base was thinner and more ‘broth-ey’ in nature unlike the thick, rich and heavy version at the institution that is Malay Chinese Takeaway. It took me a while but I was finally able to place why Hawker‘s version felt so familiar – it tasted uncannily like the soup base for the Cintan instant noodles I used to down by the 5-pack as a kid. It’s not meant to be a disparaging reference but it would be a very heavy underdog vs Malay Chinese nonetheless.
The KL hokkien mee rounds out the last of the noodle dishes we order. Big ticks for the use of crispy pork fat but I find myself agreeing with a fellow diner’s comment that our parents’ versions are probably on par if not better than what we’ve just sampled. It’s the sort of dish which (by virtue of the recipe) your average home-cook would have a decent shot at replicating. No issues with the taste, more a question of whether this justifiably sits at the top end of the noodle dish price range.
What tips the balance of opinion on our table though, and one of the main sources of disgruntlement is the small serving size. Speaking to the staff at the register, this has been a conscious decision to mirror what you’d find in the hawker centres of Malaysia. The portions certainly wouldn’t look out of place in Malaysia, but I’d question the wisdom of serving them up on large western dinner plates which only serve to highlight their meagerness. And while there’s certainly merit to having smaller serving sizes to allow diners to try more things, it’s hard to escape a sense of being shortchanged given its peers arguably offer a better taste and size proposition AND price more competitively.
Our gripe with value though was temporarily subdued with the arrival of the ikan bakar. Despite being the joint most expensive menu item at $16, the portion of grilled stingray we received was ginormous! Enjoyment however was curtailed by apparent overcooking which resulted in tough and dry flesh short on standalone flavour – and in need of rescuing by the accompanying sambal chilli sauce that disappeared all too quickly. An order mix up also saw a second ikan bakar arrive at our table – one that looked (without exaggeration) half the size of the one we received so looks like consistency could be an issue too.
We had to order the or chian for no other reason than its rarity in Australia. It’s sort of like spotting a unicorn (ok not quite) but I think you get the point – not many places offer it, and the few that do don’t seem to be able to do a good job of it. I’m sad, but in some ways unsurprised to report Hawker doesn’t buck the trend in this respect.
Obiter dicta: Where does all of that leave us? Some things are easy to fix e.g. serving sizes and speeding up service times. Others, such as imbuing ‘wok hei’ into the dishes will be more difficult. I really do hope Hawker takes on customer feedback and improves its value proposition – smaller serving sizes lead to hungry diners, and there’s some truth to that old adage that goes something like “a hungry man is an angry man”.