Photo by author.

We Talked to People Queuing for the World's Only Michelin-Starred Street Food Stall

Singapore's Hawker Chan is selling its famous chicken and rice dish at a three-day pop-up in London this week

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14 March 2018, 5:57pm

Photo by author.

It takes a certain type of restaurant to win a Michelin star. Usually, they’re fancy, there might be foie gras or a weird smudge of sauce on each dish, and they’re almost always expensive. Unless, of course, you’re Hawker Chan, the only street food stall ever to be awarded a Michelin star.

The Singaporean food stall won the accolade for its signature dish, soya sauce chicken and noodles—sold for the princely sum of $1.50 (£1.08)—in 2016. It immediately shot to fame and hour-long queues now regularly form outside the establishment before it opens at 5.30 AM each day.

This week, the revered stall is in London for a three-day pop-up at a street food market in King’s Cross. Keen to witness the hype myself, I headed down to the market and, sure enough, was greeted by a queue of hundreds of people, many of whom had been waiting for over an hour. Hawker Chan’s humble stall-cum-shipping container stood at the end of the line with a sign above it that read, “ A TASTE OF SINGAPORE.” Bingo.

The crowd outside the Hawker Chan pop-up in King's Cross, London. All photos by author.
The soya sauce chicken.

I spoke to some of the people standing in line for a chance to try the famous soya sauce chicken. Disclaimer: I didn’t actually get to try the famous dish, despite interviewing people for an hour. At lunchtime. In the cold.

Vanessa and Emma

Vanessa and Emma.
MUNCHIES: So, firstly, how long have you guys been waiting here for?

Vanessa: Since 11 AM. So, almost an hour and a half.

Why wait in line for this?

Emma: [laughs] Erm, we don't have class today, and it's a Michelin star food, and it's Asian food. And it's cheap.

Vanessa: We wanted to come for the experience. I think [waiting in line] gets you more hyped up for the food but it also is kinda dangerous because you're like, “I waited an hour and a half, it's not that great.”

That was going to be my next question: what are you going to do if it’s not that good?

Emma: I think I'm so deprived of Asian food at this point that it will most likely taste good.

The queue for Hawker Chan.
What kind of soya sauce chicken are you hoping for?

Emma: I've had this dish growing up because it can be a Cantonese thing, I think? So, it tastes like home.

Vanessa: Aww. I'm just hoping for good food in general. I didn't grow up with this but I'm just hoping for tender chicken, good rice, and good sauce.

Roland

Roland and his friend from Russia.
You're quite near the end of the queue, so presumably you haven't been queuing that long.

Roland: No, exactly. Literally two minutes. I got here two minutes ago.

Why queue?

Well, my friend sent me an article, obviously a very well-known chef and first Michelin star for a street stall, so why not? It's a sunny day, not much better to do—I'm a student at the moment, so it's like procrastination.

How long are you willing to wait for?

I would say as long as it takes but that's a lie. I dunno, maybe half an hour, three-quarters of an hour. If I'm still here in two hours, I might call it a day.

What would you do if it's not as good as you hoped?

I will accept that. I'm not expecting some sort of amazing gastronomical masterpiece. Obviously, it's got a reputation but it's still a pop-up stall so the quality might not be consistent throughout. I'm here for the experience and not necessarily an amazing dish.

I've been talking to people and there seem to be rumours that the last 200 people might not get it. I think that might include you.

Possibly. I don't know. Maybe we're the lucky ones?

Yumi

Yumi (middle) and her friends.
How long have been here?

Yumi: We came at 11 AM, so that an hour and 40 minutes.

Wow. What are you hoping it will be like?

Nice food. Perfect rice. This is their signature, so it should be amazing. It's so simple, isn't it? Soya sauce, chicken, and rice. Something you can get at any Chinese restaurant. I want to see what's so special.

What will you do if it's not as good as you hope?

Hmm. Wow. I'm not going to do anything, probably. I will probably think, “This is the taste of Singapore,” and maybe the authentic taste is not for me. I'm sure it's good.

Sean

Sean waiting in line for Hawker Chan.
How long have you guys been here for?

Sean: We've been in line for about an hour now.

[Sean’s friend corrects him: “An hour and 42 minutes.”]

Oh really. What made you want to come?

Well, Hawker Chan is the first cart to get a Michelin star, and we're both chefs so we've both worked in Michelin starred environments, and it's a very unusual change in the way we perceive food. Michelin stars used to be considered something really classical, really posh. It's really interesting to see someone who is a street hawker essentially get a Michelin star, so we had to come and try it out.

What are you hoping it'll be like?

So, the whole point of a Peking duck is to have a crispy skin on the outside—

[Sean’s friend corrects him again: It's a chicken.]

Oh, it's a chicken. Well, that's how you traditionally make it. I want to learn more about Asian food.

Sahira, Raj and Mina

Raj, Sahira, Lahana, and Mina.
How long have you guys been here for?

Raj: Like an hour and a half I believe.

Why?

Raj: Well, this was kind of on my bucket list after I saw a video on the $1.50 meal that he has in Singapore, and that it was Michelin starred. This is pretty much "goals" to check out, so when I found out I was coming to London, I thought, “This is the next best thing, I don't know when I'm going to travel to Singapore.”

What are you hoping it's going to be like?

Sahira: Delicious.

Mina: Ideally, worth the wait.

Raj: I mean, delicious. What else is there say? There's just something about having a variety of spices and sweetness when it comes to soya sauce chicken. There's a lot of ingredients that go into marinating the chicken.

Sahira: I think the fact that it's just chicken and rice. I want to see why chicken and rice has a Michelin star. I have no idea and I have no expectation.

Raj: Yeah how did a dollar fifty meal get a Michelin star and this queue?

What will you do if it's not as good as you hope?

Raj: It's better to say you've tried it, right? How do you know if you're going to be let down or not unless you try for yourself?

Zef

Zef, mere moments before he got to try the dish.
How long have you been waiting in line for?

Zef: Erm, about an hour and ten minutes, which isn't actually too bad.

How long would you have been willing to wait?

About an hour and a half. I'm not much of a queuer, I'm already disappointing myself by being here really. That's why I was hoping people wouldn't spot me [gestures to his mate, who has spotted him]. I've just snuck out of work!

Oh no, and now you've been spotted. What will you do if it's not as good as you wanted it to be?

Probably, laugh? I won't be upset, it's an experience, isn't it? I will probably tell people what an idiot I am.

What are you hoping the dish will be like?

Well, ideally, something I haven't tasted before, and I'm not as up to speed on Asian food so that going to be quite easy. I'm going to be an easy customer.

We caught up with Zef after he had eaten the Hawker Chan chicken to see how it was.

Behold, the Michelin-starred £6 soya sauce chicken.

How was the first bite?

It was tasty. There was a massive shard of bone in the middle... it's actually on the bone and it's been chopped, so I'm the idiot. That's my cultural awareness for you.

It's tasty, it's got good heat, there's a good soya taste. My life is complete.