No matter that I hadn’t made it to the countless cheese steak joints, pizza parlours, and ethnic food trucks on campus. Reunion events and catching up with friends had made my food-a-thon down Philly’s memory lane practically impossible. But one place that my group of friends and I just had to visit, come what may, was Penang – our beloved Malaysian restaurant on the south-east tip of Chinatown. (Yes I know, it’s a chain, but the Philly branch is one of my few exceptions to the no-chain rule.)
Most of us have ordered exactly the same thing every time we visit, with my personal favourites being the two things I ordered that day...
Mango Tofu or Chicken (though after trying the chicken version, I realized that I preferred the tofu) – Two behemoth mango skins overflowing with juicy mango slivers and deep-fried crispy tofu, soaked in a sticky sweet-and-sour sauce and sprinkled with crunchy white baby noodles
This giant of a dish is all mine of course, and will be cleaned up right to the belt-breaking end with no helpers or sharers needed, thank you.
On past visits when I hadn't already ordered the Roti Canai as an appetizer, I would often order their Penang Kari Ayam, a more ‘full-bodied,’ flavour-amplified version of the Roti Canai’s chicken curry (thanks to my Penang partner-in-crime, Maliha, for introducing me to this dish!). And for those looking to extinguish any spice-induced fires or reconcile insolent digestive organs that refuse to consume that last sauce-drenched bite of sweet and sour mango tofu, I’d recommend ordering a glass of Penang’s refreshing lychee drink to cleanse your palate and get ready for another round of Malaysian flavour explosion.
Maliha yet again stepped outside her comfort zone and ordered a spicy shrimp with okra dish that we had never tried before. Another great find in my opinion, with soft gooey okra slices that had been cooked in a dangerously potent base of spicy shrimp paste and sautéed onions.
All said and done, I’m disappointed that over my five years in college, I’ve failed to experiment more often with other dishes on their menu. And now a one or two day trip back to the city necessitates ordering my long-time favourite dishes. The obsessive eater that I am, I did calculate how many days it would take for me to try the entire menu, just in case there came a time in my life when I was in need of something to do and could afford a trip to Philly only to do justice to the complete Penang menu.
My calculation - If I had both lunch and dinner at Penang (not an outlandish proposition in my opinion), and ordered 1 appetizer (out of 19), 1 of either their (13) fried noodles or (13) rice dishes or (8) soups, and 1 entree (either of their 73 chicken, veggie or seafood platters, sizzlers or casseroles) per meal, that would take approximately 36 days. Or even fewer, if I wanted to squeeze in two entrees in each meal, which is somewhat of a compromise given that the complex flavour compositions of each Malaysian concoction are best savoured one at a time, rather than all at once.
Coming back to the fact that Penang is a chain, I’ve tried the branch in NYC as well, before it relocated from East Village/Astor place to the Upper West. I wasn’t as impressed; the whole experience seemed somewhat muted as compared to the Philly branch, with smaller portion sizes (or could that just be my own greedy visual bias?) and mellowed-down flavours. I’ve also tried their sister restaurant, Nyonya, in NYC’s Chinatown, where my only unappealing visual memory left of the place is that of viscous oil globules floating atop whatever greasy curry happened to spill out onto our table that day. Bottom line – I’ll stay true to my first Penang love in Philly and not mar the experience by visiting its relatives in other cities.
One final note (and warning), the food at Penang has this inexplicably drowsy effect on all those victims who end up eating twice (or in Maliha’s and my case, usually four times) the amount of food they would normally ingest at a typical meal. The last time I was wiped out for almost fifteen hours straight, which is quite unusual since I’m more of a 5 to 6 hour-a-night person. Not totally surprising...anything that’s that good must have some form of addictive, mind-numbing substance in it.
Phone: +1 (215) 413-2531 & (215) 413-2532
117 N. 10th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107