George Town is such a densely packed labyrinth of food amazingness that I'm pretty sure you have to live there for a few generations to master all the nooks and crannies.
In our time there we averaged about 5 meals a day. I'd say they were small, but you know I always get that weird look on my face when I'm lying. I won't embarrass either of us with a coverup.
So we got in a little practice, most of it enjoyable.
We may not have rooted out the most obscure locales, but we've distilled down some of our favorites into a little hit parade. So without further ado, here's Part I of our Beginner's Guide to Eating in George Town.
1. Nasi Kandar from Nasi Kandar Line Clear
Nasi Kandar is a serious George Town tradition. While it's popular all over the country, pretty much everyone agrees that Penang has a lock on the superlative version.
Line Clear is an institution. We're not breaking any ground here by recommending it. However, it's an excellent place to get an introduction due to the fine blend of quality, character, and the wide mix of patrons. Not to mention that it's open 24 hours a day so you can always get your crazy grub on.
The start of an impressive fish head curry.
The concept of nasi kandar is a broad one. It doesn't refer to any specific dish but rather to a hodgepodge of bold flavored meats and vegetables served over rice with a finishing pour of mixed curry sauces.
Basically you work your way through the line pointing at anything you want a scoop of. At the end, tell them you want it banjir (or flooded) and the helpful dude there will spoon out dollops from 3 or 4 of the curries of the day.
There's really no way to go wrong but if your palate's on the delicate side watch out for some of the funkier dishes like the stewed fish maw or swim-bladder.
Nasi Kandar Line Clear is in an alley on the SE side of Jalan Penang just south of Lebuh Chulia. You can't miss the signs.
2. Fresh Nutmeg Juice from Kedai Kopi Lam Ah (or the Lam Ah Coffee Shop)
Penang grows a lot of nutmeg. I knew the seed was delicious of course, and I was familiar with the whole fruit from our time in Zanzibar. But what I didn't realize is that you can you can squeeze that sucker and wring it out into a refreshing beverage.
Word on the street is that you have to get out into the countryside to find the best nutmeg juice. But if you're like us, working with limited time and transportation, Lam Ah is a great place to sample the drink in the city center.
The flavor is surprisingly mild, bringing out the light, tangy side of what can sometimes be an oppressively potent spice. The drink is almost white in color (there's a dark version made from the cooked fruit), slightly sweet and has a subtle and not unpleasant astringency on the finish. It's rather addictive, but I'd be remiss if i didn't mention that it's also a mild natural laxative so don't get carried away.
Lam Ah is on the NW corner at the intersection of Lebuh Pantai and Lebuh Chulia.
3. Nasi Lemak from Toh Soon Cafe
Nasi Lemak may be the most iconic dish in Malaysia. The little packets of rice cooked in coconut milk and commonly paired with spicy sambal, boiled egg, and peanuts are ubiquitous on pretty much every street corner and roadside snacketeria.
To spot the best would be a herculean task requiring charts, graphs, double blind studies and maybe a theme song. None of which we have.
When in doubt we default to a really enjoyable version in a top-notch atmosphere. Toh Soon is old school Penang in fine form. The long, narrow, semi-open space is comfortable and inviting. They still grill bread on open coals and make rich coffee in a sock filter.
Parcels of nasi lemak come standard on every table but they're not actually made in house. Toh Soon gets deliveries multiple times throughout the day from a nearby producer. Even so, the final product is sweet, salty, spicy, a little pungent, and extremely enjoyable.
4. Char Kway Teow from the Stall in front of Sin Guat Keong Coffee Shop
If any dish can rival nasi lemak in shear saturation quotient, it's char kway teow. These broad rice noodles stir fried in lard with soy, sugar, chili and various seafoods are extremely popular.
We spent a good chunk of time tracking down acclaimed vendors and comparing their wares. Some days we managed to slip char kway teow in for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or at least second breakfast, second lunch, or second dinner.)
We found several lovely versions, but it was hard to beat the combination of flavors and theater at the little stall in front of Sin Guat Keong. Ah Sean, the owner, still cooks over charcoal and he mixes the oil he fries the seafood in back into the pork fat that's used to stir fry the noodles. Not a bad trick. He'll also throw in some fat mantis shrimp for a few extra ringgit if you wanna get fancy.
The stall is open from 6pm-Midnight and is located on Lebuh Kimberley at the corner with Lebuh Cintra.
5. Medicinal Tea from Shong Hor Hin Medicated Tea Shop
After all the eating you're going to be doing, nothing settles the stomach like a glass of bittersweet herbal tea from this Chinese shop.
The proprietress mixes over 40 herbs, leaves, flowers, and bits to make a lukewarm tincture that despite your doubts and misgivings will totally hook you up. The very sweet lady who runs the place will keep a sharp eye on you to make sure you polish off the last of the revitalizing dregs. She'll even follow it up with a splash of syrupy bonus beverage Mary Poppins-style to soothe any insult to your tastebuds.
I wouldn't skip this place. We came back almost every day we were in town.
Shong Hor Hin is at 194 Lebuh Kimberly (on the north side between Jalan Penang and Jalan Kuala Kangsar)
Open: 1pm to 10pm
Note: This is the storefront location. The mobile stall is in the same area but changes location (We found it on Lebuh Cintra just south of Lebuh Campbell.)
Stay tuned for a second installment of good ol' George Town eatin'.