This post was first published a little over two years ago, and it's been one of the most viewed and shared posts ever since. We're still here in George Town, still eating around and taking in life in the city. Sometimes it seems that things never change here, but of course they do. And over five years after moving from Kuala Lumpur to Penang island we continue to stumble across new-to-us spots. So it seemed time for an update:
Our experience of George Town is somewhat unique; we've been fortunate to know the city as tourists, a writer and photographer on assignment and for the last three-plus years, as residents. We know what we like as folks living right in the heart of the city, right now. But we can remember well what struck us as observers keen on finding a story, and what we wanted from and liked best about the city as travellers without a mission.
Every week I (Robyn) receive emails asking for recommendations -- for restaurants and hawker stalls, for hotels, for non-street food places to eat. There's already loads of Penang and George Town info on this blog as well as in articles I've written for the New York Times, SBS Feast, Wall Street Journal Asia, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and other publications. But now, as tourism to the UNESCO world heritage site I call home grows by leaps and bounds, it seems a good time to pull some loose ends together into a post that will hopefully insure visitors make the most of their time here.
If you're planning a visit to Penang know first that George Town is the place to stay. The island's beaches just don't rate, especially when compared with others in the region. Penang is an increasingly urbanized island half of whose coastline is separated from a busy shipping port by a well traversed strait.-- which doesn't make for pristine waters. And, unfortunately,increasingly larger swathes of the island are falling to unsightly development; head north up the east side of the island from George Town past kilometer after kilometer of eyesores and you'll see what I mean. Sure, there are spots outside George Town worth visiting: Balik Pulau, durian farms (in season), Penang Hill (not on a weekend!) .... but all can be done comfortably in a day trip.
George Town: a mostly lowrise, very walkable city. Red tile roofs mark old shop houses.
Despite gentrification and a serious overstock of boutique hotels, cafes and trinket shops -- and the resultant loss of many long-time residents -- George Town is still, somehow, very 'real'. Moreover it is unique in the region for its historically rich (and fairly intact) cityscape, loads of authentic (ie. not designed for tourists) "street theater" (the Hungry Ghost festival is on as I write this) and fabulous food, especially on the street.
Best of all, George Town is completely walkable. A reasonably fit individual can walk the heritage site end-to-end (Penang Road to Weld Quay, Prangin Canal to Fort Cornwallis) in less than an hour.
WHEN TO GO
Penang's climate - much like that of many other places in the world - is a bit screwy: it rains during the dry season, is dry during the wet season. In short, there's really no bad time to visit George Town (even when it rains showers never last all day), though there are some less-good and times than others. Many Chinese hawkers close during the first week, or at least the first 3 days, of Chinese New Year and February, March and April are often beastly hot (you won't want to be out walking between 11:30AM and 4:30 or 5pm). August is a great time to visit Penang, both for the George Town Festival and for Hungry Ghost month, observances of which reach a frenzy in Penang not seen elsewhere in the region. Photographers flock to Penang for Thaipusam (January or February; the festival is several days long and involves a procession from George Town's Little India to a temple on a hill in the middle part of the island) and the Nine Emperor Gods Festival (September or October), which lasts for nine days and culminates in a night-time procession the ends with small unmanned boats filled with offerings being set afire in the waters off Weld Quay. (Dave published a multimedia of the event here. Turn your sound on to watch.)
WHERE TO EAT
This list is far from comprehensive, it could extend for pages. I won't claim that any of these spots are The Best this or that -- isn't that a fairly useless exercise when taste is so subjective? -- but they are places that I, and folks whom I refer, consistently enjoy. There's enough here to keep you busy and well-fed for a good 3 days or so. Addresses are listed or are to be found in links.
Our first meal here was in 2009, back when Teochew-Chinese-Malaysian restaurant Tek Sen was a glorified stall with tables occupying an alley and a five-foot way, before it had a Facebook page and an illustrated menu and a few years before its mention in a Lonely Planet guide made tourists as often seen here as locals. When Tek Sen tripled its capacity by relocating to its current double shophouse premises we feared the worst. But quality has remained high, probably because the family that opened the place 25 or so years ago is still on hand, in the kitchen and the front of the house, to insure that your bacon candy is every bit as savory-salty-sweet-lardy as it should be.
These days the queues are gruesome (but it's worth the wait, we promise!), so go early (around 6pm), late (around 830pm but beware -- customers are often turned away by 8:45), or for lunch (11 am to 2 pm). After all these years Tek Sen is still the first place we take visitors for a meal, and for good reason.
Some of our favorite dishes from a very long menu: Teochew steamed fish with tomatoes, tofu and sour plum; gully tumis; French beans stir-fried with pork; steamed homemade tofu; pork belly with preserved mustard greens; potato leaves stir-fried with sambal or garlic; bean sprouts with salted fish; tamarind prawns; pig's trotters stewed in Chinese black vinegar and of course -- bacon candy (aka double-cooked pork with chilies). Ask about the specials on the white board (written in Chinese).
Foong Wei, Sri Bahari half a block from Penang Road
After Tek Sen, the dinner spot we recommend most often is this classic oldish Chinese-Malaysian restaurant just outside the core conservation zone. Expect fluorescent lights, red tablecloths and brusque service -- along with very good kind-of-retro (in a non-hipster way) food. We like the mango chicken, prawn spring rolls, roast pork leg and spinach with century egg. You can also ask for recommendations.
Toh Yuen, Campbell Street near Cintra
Go to this old Cantonese spot for the tea and the atmosphere -- plenty of old-timers while away hours here. There is poached and roast chicken rice which is good but not as good as that at Keng Pin (see below), and the odd dim sum and pork buns which are OK. We go for the handmade fish ball soup with greens, and always ask them to throw in a few sui gao (pork dumplings); 'veggie' (blanched choy sum a drizzle of oyster sauce and sesame oil) and kiam chai boi, a sour-spicy soup-stew "leftovers" dish of meat (duck, here) cooked with mustard greens, chilies, tamarind, asam keping ("sour slices") and chilies. Noodle dishes are also excellent -- try the sang har meen.
Simply the best nasi campur ("mixed rice", ie. rice and curries) in George Town, perhaps on all of Penang island. The owners of this stall migrated a couple decades ago from Sumatra, and the Indonesian island's influences come through in dishes like deep-fried tempeh with green chilies and dried anchovies, long eggplants fried to silkiness and doused with fiery red chili paste, beef jerky deep-fried with red chilies and an addictive sambal made with grilled green chilies and tiny fish. Pineapple curry, whole round eggplant in an Indian-ish curry leaf-flecked curry, papaya leaves stewed in coconut milk, chicken stewed in kecap manis and red chilies and fresh pineapple achar say "Malaysia", and the Chinese touch can be seen in a mild tofu skin-and-rice vermicelli soup. The amazing spread here includes several types of whole fish (look for deep-fried specimens spilling crispy caramelised sambal-rubbed sliced onions), a few different sambals and plenty of vegetarian options including, occasionally, do-it-yourself gado gado. Open till 4 or 5, but this is really a lunch place.
Go by noon for the best selection, and know that this place gets really crowded (as in No Seats) on weekends. Note: this stall remains open for lunch during Ramadan.
Cozy seating and darned fine nasi campur at International Hotel
Woodlands, Penang Street about half a block east of China Street, Little India
Our beloved Veloo Velas just up Penang Street, which I included in the original version of this post, has taken such a dive in quality that I can no longer recommend it. Happily Woodlands, a fairly comfortable (yet still ridiculously inexpensive) air-conditioned cafe with a friendly staff, is still going strong. We go Woodlands for tiffin, the southern Indian term for morning and evening meals that do not revolve around rice and curries and other dishes but are comprised of deliciously easy-to-digest specialties made with fermented rice batter: thosai, idli, uttapam, etc.
Nasi Kandar at Toon Leong Cafe
Is this the famous Penang nasi kandar stall that Anthony Bourdain ate at? NO. It's better. Run by the grandson of its founder, this little stall is parked at a kopitiam (coffee shop) run by the grandson of the guy who opened it over 80 years ago. Service is mornings only, most things are sold out by ten. I became reacquainted with the fragrantly spicy beef curry a week ago and am thrilled to report it's as tender and delicious as ever. Toon Leong's strong kopi beng (iced coffee with sweet milk), surely one of the best in town, is especially nice sipped while sitting in one of the coffee shop's unironically vintage booths. The coffee shop sells its ground coffee in 10-ringgit bags.
Hainan chicken rice at Keng Pin on Penang Road
Hainan chicken rice may be Singapore's national dish but we're lucky to have a mighty excellent version here in George Town. If you're one of those folks who doesn't "get" this dish try the version here, served from about 1130am (Mondays off) by an intense couple who don't smile much but do know how to delicately poach a chicken to barest doneness and cook rice in the bird's broth with garlic to perfection, grains tender and separate. The sourish chili sauce is nice too. Specify when you order, breast or leg/thigh, with or without skin.
Oyster Omelette stall, front of narrow shop on Carnavon three doors east of Kimberley Street
This vendor does not get enough love. It pains me to see his stall so unappreciated when the vendor of the 'famous' oyster omelette of George Town, at a coffee shop just two doors down, does a rip-roaring business. Be bold -- skip the famous version (which is really just OK) and try this one, which is really different. Instead of the usually greasy, gummy pile this stall serves of a thin and lacy, crispy pancake of tapioca and rice starch batter layered with egg, and tops it with a mess of oysters fried with chili and bean paste. The garnish of cilantro leaves takes it over the top. The beef noodles soup served at the other stall occupying this narrow (and, admittedly, hot as heck) shop deserves notice too.
Note: in September oyster omelette and beef noodles will move down Carnavon west towards 1st Avenue shopping mall to a wider and more airy shop on the same side of the street.
Curry Mee (on the same street as "Famous Cendol" -- see below -- off Penang Road)
Note: as of two weeks ago this curry noodle vendor was on temporary hiatus. I include her stall nonetheless, in the hope that she'll be back soon.
I love Eng, the bubbly woman who runs this stall, and I love her curry mee even more. She used to park her stall on Cintra Street, but moved when the building behind her was refurbished. I thought she was gone forever until we stumbled upon her current location, in front of a cute little shop house whose three tables offer a cool, quiet respite from George Town's hot noisy streets. Be sure to order the loh han goh, an (admittedly pretty sweet) herbal drink made with a dried medicinal fruit that is said to be cooling -- more so if ordered with ice. Read more here.
Lam Mee, just outside pork section of Campbell Street Market, Carnavon Road
In a town of curries and smoky fried noodles it's easy to overlook this subtle dish of yellow noodles (or rice vermicelli, or a mixture of the two) with bean sprouts, sliced pork and perfectly cooked tender-crunchy prawns in rich meat broth, but I encourage you to give it a try. This stall parked in front of the pork butchers at the back of dilapidated (but lovely) Campbell Street Market crowns each bowl with a flurry of cilantro leaves and offers alongside an unusually (for Penang) fiery chili sauce redolent of fishy-funky belacan (shrimp paste). The noodles here were a recent 'discovery' of ours (if you can call a stall that you've registered while walking past several times a week a 'discovery') and I deeply regret all the years e've passed not enjoying them at least once a week. The adjacent coffee stall serves an excellent traditional Malaysian brew.
Char Siew on Carnavon (corner of Cheong Fatt Tze / Hong Kong Street)
Arrive to this coffee shop by 12:15 or you'll end up waiting quite a while for your sweet-sticky pork. All hell breaks loose when this vendor, one of the few in George Town to BBQ his pig Kuala Lumpur-style (with a sticky, smoky glaze rather than Hong Kong style, dryish and rimmed in red) arrives at 12:30, unpacks roast pork, char siew and roast duck from his motorbike and hangs the meat in his glass display case. For my money the roast pork is not quite as impressive as the char siew, but it certainly isn't awful. The duck is very good, but nowhere near as tasty as that cooked over charcoal at Kuala Lumpur's old Sek Yuen restaurant. But then again I'm not sure there's a roast duck in Malaysia to match Sek Yuen's. Served with a kickass chili sauce, cucumbers, rice and gravy (if you want it).
Asam laksa at Weld Quay
Judgment of whether or not an asam laksa is "good" or "bad" or somewhere in between comes down to chilies, tamarind (and/or asam keping, aka "sour slices") and fish. I like my asam laksa spicy, tart and full of piscene flavor. If you do too get your asam laksa at the stall that parks at the corner of Weld Quay and Aceh from around 2 in the afternoon until 5. (Tip: Go late for a more concentrated broth.) Read more here. If you can score a dozen of the delicious battered and deep-fried bananas sold from the stall across the street you have better luck than I do (customers frequently by them by the whole batch).
Cendol on Burma Road at Lorong MacAlister
There may once have been a day when George Town's "famous" cendol, located on a lane just off Penang Road, was famous for a reason other than that it's famous, but that day is gone. Watery coconut milk, suspiciously vividly green mung bean "pasta" and sloppy presentation (the latter due, I suppose, to the need for speed to appease the inexplicablly huge crowds that mob this stall) make this version a No-Go for me.
Do yourself a favor: bypass the crazy queue. Walk right past and take a right at the flyover. Two or three blocks up Burma Road, on your left, you'll find a cart whose owners dish up a cendol much more worth your time and your money. The wait is short, the coconut milk is thick and rich and the gula Melaka is deep and butterscotchy. After 12pm, odd off days. (Thanks to Bee of Rasa Malaysia for this tip.)
Over the past 18 months George Town has seen a rash of cafe openings. In the last two years cafes have sprouted in George Town like fungi in a pine forest after a long rain. I'll be honest -- after many dismal cups I stopped trying them. Instead I stick with two tried and true favourites:
The owner of China House is an Australian caffeine addict and her love of the bean comes through in the coffees served at the cafe. Her baristas know what they're doing and the beans are imported from a boutique roastery in Singapore. (Desserts and homemade ice creams are a bonus.) And if you can catch it open, the owners of Ete Cafe, a blink and you'll miss it spot on Lorong Carnavon off of Carnavon Street, lend their uniquely Taiwanese love of coffee to brewing a very good cup. His beautiful French pastries and macarons and her quiche (both trained at Le Cordon Bleu) are a bonus.
Narrow Marrow, run by a young couple who take their coffee seriously and have a great design sense, occupies George Town's narrowest shop house; it's worth a visit just to take in the space itself. We don't get there as often as I'd like, especially now that the cafe is only open on weekends. But the vibe is very friendly, the espresso drinks are fabulous; the also serve fruit drinks and beer. Carnavon Street opposite the entrance to Prangin Lane.
WHERE TO SHOP
Kedai Kek Sunflower, Hutton Lane a bit north of Penang Road
Kueh lapis, a lovely cake composed of many many super-thin layers that is made by pouring, baking, pouring, baking, pouring baking and so on for each individual layer, keeps and travels well-- making it an excellent gift or edible souvenir. The good version is made with butter, as is the kueh lapis at this little shop where, the last time I was in, you could watch the co-owner make her cakes up front near the display case. Go for the original version -- not chocolate chip or raisin or whatever other flavours they've got going now. Expect to pay around 20 ringgit for a cake, which is justified if real butter is used.
Chop Kongsi, Penang Street next to Ren I Tang Hotel, Little India
You never know what you'll find at Chop Kongsi, an artist-run matchbox of a shop right next to Ren I Tang (see Where to Stay, below). Malaysian Foo May Lyn does her own thing with needles,yarn, threads, lace, textiles, pen and pencils. A nice change from the same-old same-old items sold in many shops around George Town. Check out Chop Kongsi's wares on its Facebook page.
Kitchenware shops, Carnavon Road across from 1st Avenue shopping mall
Right next to the fruit store at the corner are two side-by-side shops selling almost everything for the kitchen, including new enamel ware (from China, most likely). Be willing to sweat a bit and poke around in the dust for wooden moon cake holds, colourful melamine plates and bowls, patterned ceramic ware and other odds and ends. You'll find many of these items for sale in cute shops nearer the centre of George Town -- for a lot more.
WHERE TO STAY
I live here so obviously I'm not staying at hotels. I include places that I have either viewed several times, that are run by people who have a reputation for being on top of service, or that have been recommended to me by at least three of my street food walk clients. (FWIW George Town's two oldest, and most 'classic' hotels, consistently get the thumbs-down from folks staying there. No need to mention names, but it seems to be a case of resting on laurels.) My bias is towards smallish, unique hotels that are the result of a sensitive/smart refurbishment of older structures by owners who've really put their heart(s) into the project. There's a lot of sub-par refurbishment going on in (formerly) lovely old buildings around town; know when you book a hotel that the word "heritage" in its name guarantees nothing.
Stunning suites with very cool black and white mosaic tiled bathrooms arranged around a long courtyard on the second story of seven rebuilt terrace houses. Very private (only guests and their guests are allowed beyond the bar and restaurant) with a small pool. Read my full review for Wall Street Journal Asia here.
I included this early comer to George Town's boutique hotel scene in my NYTimes Travel "36 Hours in Penang" piece, which a few years ago was republished in a book of 36 Hours pieces. As such rooms here can be hard to come by but it's worth trying, because Campbell House is small and intimate and the welcome is warm, thanks to the hands-on management style of its Malaysian and Italian owners.
Note: Do not be fooled by the copycat signage of the 'Campbell House guest house' opened right next door. It has no association with this hotel.
Fabulously located in Little India, which to my mind is one of George Town's main attractions, the rooms at this refurbished Chinese medicine hall are as beautiful as they are comfortable, and are varied in size and configuration so as to accomodate the needs of single travelers and families as well as couples. The cafe downstairs is a great spot in which to cool off (passion fruit soda highly recommended) while people watching.
Sin Keh describes itself as a "guest house" but has all the comforts of a hotel; it occupies a stylishly refashioned old shop house sited in a neighborhood not yet pocked with same-same cafes and trinket stores. There's an arts workshop and performance space in the hotel, which makes for a good crowd. The vibe is laid back and friendly and the roof deck is a great place to relax at sunset with a drink. As one who often finds that the problem with hotels is not the hotel but inconsiderate guests I appreciate Sin Keh's "Quiet at Night" policy.
More than ten street food walk clients have talked up this guest house located on Beach Street opposite Toh Aka Lane. But it's recently changed hands, and I have no idea how that will affect the guest experience, if it does. Still, if you're looking for something a bit more on the budget side of things it may be worth checking out.
When we're in Penang I offer private street food walks in George Town, while EatingAsia photographer Dave Hagerman, who shoots for Saveur, SBS Feast, the New York Times and other publications, runs private and small-group photography workshops ranging from 3 hours to 1.5 days. Check out reviews of Dave's Penang photography walks here. I limit walks to two a week, so I'm rarely available for last-minute bookings; Dave is more flexible. For more details contact us by email: robyn[DOTt]eckhardt[at]gmail.com and drhagerman[AT]gmail.com.
AND HEY! We're both honoured to have been nominated for the Saveur magazine 2016 Food Blog Awards. If you're so inclined you can vote for EatingAsia (category: Eat the World) and David Hagerman (category: Instagram) here. THANK YOU!