Lunch at our college-favourite Malaysian haunt: Penang in Philly’s Chinatown

blankNo 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.)

Back at Penang in Philly

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…

Roti Canai – Crispy crepe-like bread or roti, that gets dunked into a bowl of explosively-flavoured Malaysian chicken curry that’s been infused with coconut milk and lemongrass
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.

One mango shell empty, one more to go.
Mee Siam – a Malaysian version of Pad Thai, with tofu and shrimp, and garnished with peanuts and hard-boiled eggs

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.

The newcomer of the day: shrimp with okra

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

Author: InaFryingPan

With a family legacy of ingenious cooks, a nutritionist and chef-extraordinaire mother, and a father who introduced me to steak and caviar when I could barely reach the table, I had no choice but to acquire a keen awareness of food during my childhood years in Dubai. But it was only after I found myself on a college campus in Philadelphia – far away from home, too cheap as a student to spend on anything other than pizza, and with dorm rooms that had little rat-holes of kitchens if they even had them at all – when I developed a heightened appreciation of food. An appreciation of food that I once ate every night at the dinner table in Dubai, but that was now an entire ocean away. I lusted for the culinary treasures that lay outside the stale walls of my college dining hall, hijacked friends’ kitchens to try my hand at something, anything , remotely edible, and greedily raided different websites in search of highly-rated restaurants. With my move to New York to work for a consulting firm that secretly harbored self-professed foodies, my appreciation transformed into a passion, an addicition. I felt like everyone around me in New York was talking about food: where to get the best cupcakes, pizza slices, banh mi, kati rolls, pho, fried chicken, and every other food item out there that is just a plain old dish in some part of the world, but that’s become hyped to unforeseen proportions in New York. What fuelled my addiction over time was travel to different cities, both for work and play, which gave me unfettered access to the culinary havens of not only New York, but also of DC, Virginia, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Austin, Seattle and even a little city called Bentonville (Arkansas!). After 9 years away from home, I’ve finally taken the leap to come back to Dubai – with not just an awareness, but genuine appreciation and passionate addiction for what I’d taken for granted as a child. Mom, I’m back to reclaim my seat at your dinner table, and to rediscover this city with its ever-expanding menu of international flavors.

3 thoughts on “Lunch at our college-favourite Malaysian haunt: Penang in Philly’s Chinatown

  1. rads says:

    Foodonymph ! This is an awesome article that has me craving for Malaysian Mango Tofu and Shrimp with Okra !
    You have lured me to step outside my comfort zone and try dishes like these…
    Looking foward to you next post ,
    Lotsa luck !


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