The first time we visited Penang we were lucky enough to hook up with a taxi driver who's crazy for food (that's kind of a silly thing to write, actually; we've yet to meet a Penang-ite who wasn't crazy for food). Over the course of one long, delicious morning he introduced us to an exquisite version of assam laksa, a wonderfully porky specialty that's often overlooked by visitors, and a very good cendol that might have assumed 'best' status in our book if we hadn't already eaten better in Malacca.
Mr. Goh also introduced us to Kafe Kheng Pin, an old-timey coffeeshop where a hawker sells exquisite lor bak and prawn fritters (more on those tasties later). As we sat there eating, licking our fingers in between bites, he pointed to another stall where a Hainan chicken vendor was setting up for business.
'And that,' he said, 'is the best chicken rice around.'
We groaned. We just didn't have any more room! But we never forgot those words of Mr. Goh's, uttered almost two years ago.
And so, when we found ourselves in Penang at the beginning of this year we set aside time for two visits to Kheng Pin, one for lor bak and prawn fritters and deep-fried squid, the latter of which we had somehow missed the first time around (and oh my, what an amazing deep-fried squid it is), and one for Hainan chicken rice.
On this day we found the vendor working with his wife and their son. It was lunchtime, and almost every table was graced with an order or three of chicken rice. We waited a full fifteen minutes for our lunch, watching as she cleavered chickens one after the other with amazing speed, while he dressed the plates with cucumbers and a drizzle of this and that; meanwhile the couple's son son flew around the coffeeshop delivering plates of goodness to appreciative and hungry customers.
Well, we don't know about 'best', but Mr. Goh's praise for this version of what is in reality a very simple dish was on the money. Our order included breast meat, usually the least tasty part of the chicken. But this bird really had flavor. Before slicing a breast into strips to top the rice Mrs. Chicken Rice whacks it once with the side of her cleaver, resulting in wonderfully tender pieces of meat. The chicken is cooked perfectly, still light pink at the bone, soft but with a bit of chew, and absolutely silky. The meat is almost eclipsed by the rice, individual grains shiny with chicken fat and infused with the bird's flavor.
This stall, like most of the best in Penang, has been around for a while; Mrs Chicken Rice's mother opened set up shop at Kheng Pin over forty years ago. Happily, the couple's son looks set to carry on the business. It's a must-visit if you find yourself in Penang.
Hands down the best Hainan bird we've eaten in Penang. But in all of Malaysia? Well, that may be up for debate in a couple days. This morning we're off to Ipoh, which many Malaysians would argue is the spot for chicken prepared in the Hainan way.
Hainan chicken rice at Kheng Pin, 80-82 Jalan Penang, Georgetown Penang. 630a-3pm (Hainan chicken rice from about 10-ish). Closed Monday.