Rather than plummet down the rabbit hole of fast casual’s virtues and vices once again, let’s just acknowledge a sub-trend. Michelin-starred chefs who open smaller, more affordable versions of their better-known restaurants are doing fast-casual the right way. Take Rich Table’s RT Rotisserie, the forthcoming Kin Khao project at SFO, or — to a lesser extent — Lazy Bear’s True Laurel. They focus on a few of the things people love most about the original, then collapse everything else around it. Bloodless and ugly though the phrase is, “chef-driven fast-casual” is a viable model. Although the sample size may be small yet, walking into these places you don’t get the feeling there’s a nationwide chain about to explode out of them like a chest-bursting alien embryo. They’re real.
Add James Syhabout’s Hawking Bird to the list. Its menu is small — too small, really — but it’s an attractive space, one constructed around a key dish from Hawker Fare’s much-missed original location: kao mun gai, or poached chicken over rice. Syhabout has numerous credits to his name, namely the other Hawker Fare on Valencia Street, Commis (still the only restaurant east of the Embarcadero and south of Napa with Michelin stars to its name), plus its adjacent CDP Bar, and, elsewhere in Oakland, Old Kan Beer & Co. (Syhabout and former SF Weekly staffer John Birdsall also have Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes from a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai & Lao Roots coming out later in January.)
Cooked in chicken fat and broth with the skin still on, and served with cucumbers and cilantro, kao mun gai occupies a singular spot in the Thai pantheon. For starters, it isn’t originally Thai, but a take on Singaporean Hainanese chicken rice. Served cold or at room temperature, it’s not very common on Thai menus in this country (although Berkeley’s recently opened Chick’n Rice puts it front and center). One thing kao mun gai isn’t is pretty. Slices of uniformly pale chicken with yellowish skin can look wan and unappealing — and the flavor, while delicious, isn’t particularly assertive, either. You have to appreciate the light touches, the gently cooked meat against the crunch of the cucumber as the rice — so often padding in a dish like this — adds much of the fatty richness. This cilantro is not ornamental.
The temptation with Syhabout’s version is to lard up this $11.95 bowl with add-ons, and it’s hard to resist. Being partial to almost any kind of offal, I made mine “dirty” on one visit by adding chicken liver (which I recommend) and a fried egg on another (which added next to nothing). For an extra buck, you can get a cup of chicken broth to go with it, and there’s no reason not to. The accompanying dark soy sauce is good for dipping — especially with the bites of liver — but it’s salty enough that you can go overboard quickly. Hawking Bird has its own sriracha, and a little of that mixed into the rice is like jacking up the foundation of a building an extra foot.
So a chef with two Michelin stars under his belt opened a restaurant to showcase a beloved item. I suspect upward of two-thirds of Hawking Bird’s patrons order the K.M.G., but there are also vegetables pickled in palm vinegar and fish sauce (a generous portion for $4), and straightforward garlic noodles with plenty of allium ($6, although you can swap out the rice for them in the kao mun gai, too).
And how can you open a chicken restaurant without fried chicken? As the “side chick” to K.M.G.’s “main chick,” the Hawking Bird is a garlic-ginger fillet double fried in rice batter for maximum crunch, and served as a sandwich ($9.95), in a box ($11.95), or nested amids greens that are doused in tamarind vinaigrette, lime, and palm sugar ($8.95). The sandwich is best, since the bun and the batter-heavy bird are made for each other, and the slaw on type enhances the crispiness while providing a veneer of nutrition. There’s also a veg alternative, a Mocking Bird made with Hodo Soy tofu and fried in curry batter.
One or two entree-sized menu items would be welcome, although you can sense the difficulty of Hawking Bird’s position. Adding another chicken dish could feel gimmicky but venturing further into offal territory could be a hard sell.
One other thing to applaud is the design. Most fast-casual places have interiors that look like they were designed by a committee at the corporate office in Irvine; Hawking Bird looks like the bar it used to be, Blackwater Station. It has an asymmetrical back bar that almost defies gravity. I kept staring at it thinking at least some of the bottles must be load-bearing, and if someone pulls one the whole thing might come down like a horizontal Jenga. You can get Thai iced tea and Thai iced coffee ($3.50 each) or a house kombucha ($8) but at night, there are legitimate cocktails, like the tiki-autumn Angry Bird (Plantation pineapple rum, rum fire, a house-made passion fruit liqueur, pineapple juice, lime, and mole bitters). Holy Mountain is the cocktail bar above the remaining Hawker Fare, and it seems as though Hawking Bird captured a little of that, too.
Hawking Bird, 4901 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-593-2376 or hawkingbird.com