The Urban Hawker Food Hall Imports the Flavors of Singapore to Midtown
Curated by KF Seetoh, the Hawker center is the new home of 17 culinary entrepreneurs
Known as “hawkers,” Singapore’s wandering food vendors were eventually relocated from the streets to government-owned hawker centers to make it easier, and more hygienic, for hungry customers to get their hands on signature favorites like chicken rice, laksa and satay on the cheap.
Popular with locals, tourists and New Yorker essayists, hawker centers are a Singaporean tradition — and an 11,000-square-foot one featuring some food franchises that have been in the family for multiple generations just opened in the middle of Midtown Manhattan.
A collaboration between NYC food market developer Urbanspace and Singaporean foodie and entrepreneur KF Seetoh, Urban Hawker features 17 vendors, 11 of which come from Singapore, serving up a variety of dishes from brightly decorated stalls with open kitchens that make it easy to see what’s cooking. Located on West 50th Street in prime year-round Patagonia vest territory, NYC’s first hawker center is anchored by the Sling Bar and a cocktail menu that includes, among other offerings, a Singapore Sling. Curated by Seetoh, the various food offerings at Urban Hawker from Daisy’s Dream, Prawnaholic Collections, Wok & Staple by Dragon Phoenix, Hainan Jones, Kopifellas, Jakarta Munch, Mamak’s Corner, Ashes Burnnit, Smokin’ Joe, Yum Yubu, Lady Wong, Mr. Fried Rice, Padi, Tradysion and White Restaurant feature influences from Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, Indian, Filipino and Singaporean cuisine.
“Singapore is nothing without migrants. When you’re a migrant you bring your own food and you fight with your own flavors. So what we have here is a good cross-section of the cultural flavors that are very common in Singapore,” Seetoh, the founder of the World Street Food Congress and Singapore-based food promotion firm Makansutra, tells InsideHook. “We have a mix of everything. I call it heritage street food and interest is picking up. Michelin is rating hawkers and street food vendors around the world now.”
Whittled down from a list of about 60 initial applicants, the 17 vendors at Urban Hawker are creating cuisine that Seetoh believes will make any Singaporean who stumbles across his food hall feel right at home within seconds. “They won’t even have to look at the signboard. They’ll just be able to smell and say, ‘I know what you’re selling,’” he says. “You’re not gonna find Brazilian, African or Iranian stalls here, but everything here is familiar to Singaporeans. I’ve always emphasized authenticity. These are the foods of my forebearers and my grandfather and they are food that everybody will love. I’m just widening the menu of Midtown.”
That menu now includes delights like chili crab, prawn ramen, white bee hoon, build-your-own Indonesian rice and salad bowls and the Roti John, a Singapore-style omelet sandwich. While you’ll find plenty of rice and curries as well as a good mix of meat and seafood, you won’t find too many greens at Urban Hawker. Per Seetoh, who started plotting Urban Hawker almost 10 years ago with his friend Anthony Bourdain before that plan was put on hold for obvious reasons, that lack of lighter greenery on the halls menus was by design.
“Some people say, ‘Hey, you know Americans don’t like to eat lard. They’re healthy. You should add more vegetables,’” he says. “If you want vegetables, go next door and get a salad for the same price. Every dish here, I can defend. It’s authentic. I’m just here to sell good food at a reasonable price. These are the dishes people will probably ask for when they die. People aren’t asking for Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] or Éric Ripert for their last meal. No. They want a roti or a local coffee for their last fling.”
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