We're walking Jalan Burma in wilting mid-morning heat in search of a street said to be home to Penang's best assam laksa. We walk and sweat, and sweat some more, all in vain, because we are heading in the wrong direction. (Traveler's tip: don't ever ask a Malaysian how to get somewhere. Malaysians are wonderful people but when it comes to directions they don't know north from south, east from west, left from right, over here from over there. That's OK. The food more than compensates.)
We give up, hail a taxi, and show our driver the address. Five minutes later we're sitting in front of a chicken rice shop; the place was recently sold and assam laksa is no more.
'You want assam laksa?' the driver queries. 'I'll take you to Restoran XXX. Every tourist loves the laksa there.'
DING DING DING DING DING!!!!
Alarm bells go off in our heads. We've heard that phrase ('Every tourist loves the A,B, or C there.') before and it is never, ever a promise of good things to come.
'We don't want to eat tourist food. We want to go where Penang people like to eat,' I retort.
At this point it can go either way. One: taxi driver grunts, says something under his breath followed by a cheery 'OK', and drives to Restoran XXX. Two: taxi driver turns to hungry passengers with fire in his eyes. 'OK!' he cries, rising to the mission. Amazing food, and copious inside information, follow.
In Penang we get lucky. Mr. Goh, not born and bread in Penang but a resident for over thirty years, is a skinny Chinese gentleman whose slightness belies an obsession with food - and a desire to talk about it - worthy of any true Malaysian. In us, he found his ideal fare: two food explorers with really big appetites.
I consult my list of must-eats. 'What about Air Hitam assam laksa?'
He wrinkles his nose. 'No good. Now they use powder for the curry, they don't even pound their own paste. All the tourists go there.' This time he enunciates the word with a sneer. 'There is an old aunty. She's not so friendly. But her assam laksa is the best.'
Mr. Goh hits the gas as he shares a bit of history. 'For thirty years, maybe more, she's selling her laksa at Kheng Pin coffee shop. Everyday - three hours, sold out! Then, all of a sudden, she left. Who knows why? Maybe an argument with the owner.'
He parks across from an uncrowded, newish coffeeshop on Jalan Burma. 'There she is!' he points. Sure enough, a sturdy, helmet-coiffed woman in her late sixties or so bends over a couple of pots at a streetside stall. Mouths watering by now, we sprint over to place our order. She doesn't turn around. She doesn't look up. She doesn't acknowledge our existence in any way, shape, or form.
The coffeeshop owner helpfully intercedes, asking if we can place an order. 'It's not ready yet!' Aunty snaps. When will it be? we wonder. Aunty replies to the owner, her back still turned, 'I don't know! Maybe half hour. Maybe more.'
Mr. Goh is right. This is one gnarly Aunty.
We head back to the taxi. By now, our curiosity is piqued and we're simply dying to subject ourselves to this vendor's rudeness in exchange for the privilege of trying her laksa. There's no question but that we'll wait. But what to do in the meantime?
'You must try guay teow th'ng!' Goh enthuses. 'It's close.' We jump back in the cab and head off to Fook Cheow Cafe.
Forty-five minutes and a bowl of soup noodles later, we're back. 'If you ask her for extra soup she won't give it,' Goh warns, as we step out of the car.
The laksa's ready - and most of the coffeeshop's tables are now occupied. But Aunty has disappeared. We wait ten minutes, fifteen. Finally, with the laksa dominatrix nowhere to be found, the shop owner steps in and dishes up for us a bowl each of assam laksa and laksa lemak.
With a conspiratorial smile, she ladels in extra soup.
Is the old battle axe's assam laksa the best in Penang? We've no way to judge, but we do know it's so much better than any version we've eaten in Kuala Lumpur that it's almost pointless to draw a comparison.
Aunty's soup is thin, but far from insipid, boasting shreds of fish and nubs of the ingredients that go into her paste. It's ferociously spicy and wonderfully sour (many assam laksa in Kuala Lumpur err on the sweet side), with a pronounced (and welcome) peppery-bitter torch ginger flower component. Garnishes consist of the standard combination of slivered pineapple, cucumber, copious mint leaves, more ginger flower (fresh and shredded - the pink and white bits in the bowl above) and a spoonful of hae ko, Penang's sweet and sticky black shrimp paste.
The laksa lemak may be even tastier, satisfyingly rich but light on the coconut milk and boasting not mere shreds, but chunks of fish. We'd be hard-pressed to choose between one or the other but we do know we'll forever more cast jaundiced eyes at other versions.
A quick glance around the coffee shop as we drain our bowls confirms Aunty's stature: each seat is taken, and most every patron contentedly slurps laksa. A few customers even stop by our table to introduce themselves and to extol the virtues of Aunty's specialty (no one has a pleasant word to say about the woman herself, though).
'What next?' Goh asks as we slide into the back seat. I once again consult my list, but this time only for names of Penang specialties. Goh has proven himself with kway teow th'ng and laksa, and for the rest of the morning we'll leave the choice of venues up to him.
'Loh bak?' I toss out.
'I know just the place!' he shoots back, with a grin.
Grumpy Aunty laksa, coffeeshop on Burma Road at Lorong Kinta, almost kitty corner to Starview Restaurant. Mornings, starting around 9:30 or 10. RM 4.80 for a bowl each of laksa lemak and assam laksa.