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very good

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12/03 many moderate 117 N. 10th Street
(215) 413-2531
Roti Canai, satay, noodle Dishes, curries, greens brown stews

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I would love this place even if they had mediocre food, just by virtue of them being open until 1am every day. But thankfully the food here is quite good. Penang is a small chain, there are a few around the east coast, but other than the size and efficiency, it feels like an independent family run restaurant.

The service is a bit brusque and impersonal, but efficient, sometimes TOO efficient - the food is coming out when it's done, not when you want it.

And try to remember Penang is cash-only, take it from me, it's a little embarrassing to get caught short.

Malaysian cuisine features an interesting collision of Chinese, Indian, Thai and other influences, and there are some great things to eat here that are new versions of more familiar dishes, or fusions of various traditions. They have a few things that they warn you to ask about before ordering, I guess they might be a little alien to American palates. The fruit salad with anchovy sauce does sound a bit odd, but I might have to try it. I attempted to order a pork dish once and the waiter refused to bring it, saying it was too fatty and I wouldn't like it. I wonder... there certainly are some cultural differences in food preferences, and even though I'm pretty open-minded I have encountered some foods that were just plain unpleasant unless you grew up loving them. So, tread carefully, but there's plenty of "safe" but interesting food even for the timid.

One of my favorites is the "Roti Canai" (say it "chen-eye" and you can feel really cool) it's a paper-thin pancake with an Indian-like chicken and potato curry for dipping. The roti comes in a big wad hot from the grill, go ahead and risk the burned fingers and dig right in, tearing off a hunk and dipping it in the curry. It's delicious, but the texture gets pretty stiff as it cools off, so hurry up! There's a variation on this called Roti Tellur that wraps the pancake around egg, scallion and beansprouts, and that's good too, but I prefer the simple, papery Roti Canai.

Their satay is one of my favorite renditions of this popular offering. Not everyone likes it, the chicken satay is made up of small, slightly chewy nuggets of thigh meat, not slabs of breast, threaded on a skewer, then splashed in a sweet marinade before grilling, giving a nice caramelized crust before you even get to the sauce. PhDDP thought the chicken was rubbery, but I love it and get this every time. The chicken sate takes a little while to prepare, so either order it the minute you sit down, or be ready for it to show up while you're eating your entrees, or be ready to wait. The sauce is a much more complex take on a peanut sauce, rich, grainy, I detect a little cinnamon, and is that pumpkin puree or squash or something? The beef sate is good too, and actually comes to the table a bit faster.

There are a wide array of soups and "noodles in soup" that are so large and hearty that they can be meals in themselves. BRDP loves the Seafood Tom Yam, an amplified version of a Thai Tom Yum, with loads of great seafood in it. You can have that with or without rice noodles, with the noodles, it's almost a meal for two. The Prawn Mee is popular too, with egg noodles, seafood broth, pork and shrimp. The ginger duck noodles were tasty, but as is the case at many traditional restaurants, the duck is hacked into bony chunks. I know it tastes better like this, bit it's really hard for me to eat in a soup, it's messy, I always get a bone at an odd angle in my mouth, I guess I'm just a big baby about this.

Which brings up another issue: many of the curries and rice dishes are similar, that is, big pieces of bony meat in a thick gravy. And as with soups, I understand that the best flavor comes from cooking it this way, and it's how Malaysians would eat it, but I still have trouble enjoying chewing on big bony hunks dripping with sauce. I hit a stretch early on when every thing I tried, regardless of the menu description, would be a pile of bony meat under a thick brown sauce. It was usually pretty tasty, but just a pain from my spoiled western perspective. The Chicken with Ginger and Scallion rice dish and the Penang Kari Ayam offer boneless versions for primadonnas like me, and I appreciate it!

There are good fried noodle dishes, but sadly the majority of the soups and noodles incorporate shrimp, and I need to avoid those or I'll die...but my companions love those soups and noodles. I love the simple Beef Chow Fun, it's nothing unusual, but a really excellent preparation of this with nice wide rice noodles, thin strips of beef, scallions and beansprouts, stir-fried over blastingly high heat for a nice smoky charred edge.

The clay pot "casserole" dishes are nice soupy curries. The green curry is pretty much identical to the Thai dish of that name, good, hot, rich with coconut milk and spicy. There are several with fish heads, again with warnings to consult your server.

Penang Kari Ayam is a favorite chicken dish, available boneless, with a thick Indian-flavored yellowish curry sauce. The Mango Chicken is a crowd pleaser, it's a bright, tasty sweet-and-sour sauce over boneless strips of chicken, mango and bell peppers, served in a hollowed-out mango. It's a great contrast to the earthier, brown feel of much of the menu.

There's a wide selection of whole fish, steamed or deep-fried, with a variety of sauces. These always look and smell great as they go by, but I haven't been able to sell my table on one yet. There are about a million shrimp dishes that I have just ignored....

I didn't like the Malaysian style Spare Ribs, they were deep-fried, crunchy and a bit dry. The King Pork Buff was better, still deep fried, but this time small porkchops with a sticky, sweet sauce. I couldn't get the Pork with Yam, the waiter wouldn't let me.

I've gotten a really nice plate of sautéed greens a few times, but I can never remember what they were on the menu, nothing ever looks familiar, everything seems loaded with shrimp or bean curd or something. This is not a very vegetarian-friendly place. There are one or two dishes without shrimp or pork but not much.

I like to get a small bowl of coconut rice, the plain steamed rice is just fine, but that extra richness of rice cooked in coconut milk really feels luxurious. Penang has beer and wine, and nothing goes better with much of this food than a cold Tsing Tao beer, but there are also fruit drinks, and some truly odd Malaysian concoctions, like the "ABC" and the "Chendol" made with green pea flour, corn, and other things I'd never imagined seeing in a tall glass with ice.

But give Penang a try, there's a huge array of possibilities, and even a few familiar things if you're unsure. You can't go wrong starting with the Roti Canai or Satay, and then just try something new! It's very affordable, and the portions are large, so get out of your rut and try some Malaysian food. And it you like it, try Rangoon a block away, Burmese is not exactly the same, but similar, and both of these places have drawn me back again and again,

Oh, and remember, if you're dining at Penang, bring cash....


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