Hawker Fare Oakland to Close
OFF MENU IS SPONSORED BY EMPEROR NORTON’S BOOZELAND THE TENDERLOIN’S NEWEST HISTORIC DIVE. HAPPY HOUR NOON – 7PM
It appears as if I’m losing another one of my favorites. This time it’s in the shape of a plate piled high with intensely seasoned som tum/tom sum/tum mak houng; that’s green papaya salad for you whiteys. Oakland-bred chef, James Syhabout, has put it out in the universe that the original Hawker Fare in Oakland is scheduled to close on February 18, their lease was not renewed. It’s not a loss that seems to be worrying him much, since he considers the venture an opportunity that was “…never a business plan; it landed in my lap as a bailout plan for my mom to move out of the country, so I want to keep that natural path.” His mother’s restaurant used to be in the same space once upon a time.
When the space opened in 2011, I was among the first patrons to line up at the door demanding their 24 hour pork belly; a rice bowl with a generous portion of Berkshire pork with a caramelized surface, fermented greens, and aromatic jasmine rice. It was delicious, but not far outside anyone’s comfort zone. If you’ve never eaten these flavors, which my dining companion had not, it can send your palette into a culture shock. The pungent combinations will attack your senses and make you shiver like a Victorian woman that’s just been pounced on. Both exciting and scary. The fresh salad of unripened, tart and crisp papaya, that masculine flavor of salty fish sauce, the relentless heat of delicate looking thai chilies, cherry tomato, pickled carrots and green beans, lime, and topped with peanuts. Exactly the way it was served to me by the ladies who cooked in the neighborhood tom sum houses.
The family I lived with as a teenager (after my mom gave me the boot) were from Laos. I’d watch Phany (the nurturer) hold a green papaya in one hand and hack into it with a cleaver with the other hand, continuously tapping into the papaya making little slits. Then she’d make one large slicing motion against the grain and all these little papaya threads would rain into an enamel bowl. She’d bang the shit out of ingredients in a mortar while she crouched on the ground, folded them in with the julienned papaya, then when the whole thing was finally assembled, she’d top it with chicharrones. There were several of these green papaya salad trap houses in my neighborhood. These houses belonging to various Southeast Asian families that opened for business to the community and served: kapoon, a melange of neon coloured beverages from plastic bags that had a straw tied in place with a rubber band and rice with grilled meats served on plastic plates with generic Chinese prints. But, always dedicated to Tom Sum; green papaya salad.
At Hawker Fare, the space is very much hip and refined, with floor to ceiling windows that form an L-shape. When I finally raised my head from my bowl and looked around me, I realized that I was still eating from plastic plates with generic Chinese prints and I was surrounded by a diverse ethnic customer base. I was sitting in between new neighborhood hipsters that have no recollection of what this town once was and a black man in his fifties that had seen the worst of what this town once was. And it was all happening in Oakland, a name that still makes my mom shake her head in defiance when I mention it, but I really felt like I was back in Phany’s house.
The building has been sold, along with a cluster of surrounding buildings, to a group of investors. Let’s countdown the days until it inevitably becomes more fucking condos. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing Chef Syhabout on the upcoming Parts Unknown, where he and Anthony Bourdain visit Laos.