This post includes a whole lot of recommended spots, ranging from must-visit to should-visit to pretty-good. As of 22 October 2017, our current must-visit list is as per below. Please use Ctrl+F to read more about each:
- Apom Guan (Apom balik)
- Budan’s Brew (matcha latte, croissant)
- China House (come here because it’s a fantastic looking place. And the cakes can be good at times)
- Hot Bowl (white curry mee)
- Jawi House (Briyani)
- Lim Sisters (curry mee, mainly for sentimental reasons / the experience)
- Nasi Kandar Beratur (nasi kandar)
- Presgrave 888 (hokkien prawn mee)
- Roti Canai Jalan Transfer (Roti Canai)
- Siam Road (Char Koey Teow)
- Tuai Pui (curry mee)
- Yin’s Sourdough (pizza, bread)
Look, you can come to Penang for a myriad reasons (Penang Hill, the beaches, yadda yadda) but when I think of the state, the image that pops up is inextricable from what I deem to be its core: the wondrous and dizzying array of Penang food. To that end, we’ve compiled here some of our favourite spots in the great city (yes, most of them are right in the heart of Georgetown) and look forward to hearing suggestions on other places to explore.
The list is a bit chaotic in its disorganization, so I recommend using Ctrl+F and looking for your food of choice.
Apom Balik: Apom Guan outside Union Primary School (10am – 5pm, closed Sundays)
Fluffy, soft, slightly sweet (from the bananas and dab of sweet corn) and slightly gritty (from the shredded coconut in the batter). Good stuff. There’s a long wait for these delicacies but they go for a jaw-dropping RM0.50 a piece. It gives you some time with your thoughts, standing there and watching him masterfully swirl each apom. You think about the last meal you’ve had here, which likely would have been pretty great unless you had it at a generic hawker centre in Batu Ferringhi. You wonder if this 5 day trip will be enough to blunt the ever-present exhaustion of existence. You think about where to go next. Penang stalls have wonky opening hours. It doesn’t matter that much when you’re on vacation. You get to stretch out your time and plan pre-lunches and re-lunches around the actual lunch crowd. You get to pencil in nasi kandar suppers for every night of the trip. You get to cycle around in the dying nights, which is generally pretty damn dangerous, but fairly fun when you get to pull it off. Cycling in general is the most fun way to get around Georgetown, anyway.
Banana Pancakes: New Cathay Coffee Shop (mornings)
It’s (kind of) worth going to New Cathay just for this. Comfort food rarely gets comfier than this. Sweet without being excessively cloying, fluffy and crispy at all the right places, and priced very reasonably too. Great way to start a morning, this.
Briyani: Hameediyah @ Lebuh Campbell (10am – 10.30pm)
It’s nasi kandar…but with briyani! And this is an impressive briyani that comfortably beats most of the joints in Kuala Lumpur. The mix of curries doesn’t quite reach the same heights of the best kandar joints but the individual dishes are formidable enough on their own. Go for the lamb korma, mutton and chicken curry, and perhaps the squid eggs (though Hameediyah doesn’t dish out the best rendition). Hard to be dissatisfied after gorging yourself here.
Briyani: Jawi House (11am-10pm, closed Tuesdays)
One of those places that seem designed for tourists and eschewed by locals. Don’t be fooled. It’s very, very good. The lamb stew boasts tender meat and a decent broth. The beef briyani, though, was a highlight of one of my trips. It’s incredible. It blows away the briyani at Hameediyah by a significant margin (although, in fairness, they’re very different types of briyani) and is an absolute must-try. The upstairs of the place houses a bunch of Jawi art too, which is worth a look through.
They also serve a pretty interesting yoghurt cheesecake. We’re planning a return trip to explore the rest of the menu.
Cafe: Budan’s Brew (8am – 10.30pm)
Very good green tea latte, and the croissant is flaky, crisp and almost equally as satisfying. Good luck finding the place though. It’s tucked away into a lane I can no longer recall the name of. Which makes it a great spot to cycle to and disappear for an hour or two of tranquility. Sometimes you need a short break to prep yourself for the next bout of Penang food.
Cafe: China House (9am-12am)
China House isn’t really just a cafe. It’s an amalgamation of wonderful places along a long narrow passageway that’s split up into multiple sections, each with their own distinct interiors. There’s nothing quite like it in Penang, and it should be your de facto choice if you’re looking for a cafe here.
The cakes are all generally pretty good, though the drinks and food generally vary in quality. Drop by for a quick respite from the sticky heat and take in the gorgeous ambience.
Char Koey Teow: Siam Road (Opens 3pm, there’s usually a queue by 2.30pm. Closed on Mondays)
To many Malaysians, Char Koey Teow is synonymous with Penang food. And for that reason, there’s usually a great deal of clamorous debate over which stall dishes out the best plate of CKT. But here’s the thing with the venerable Siam Road Char Koey Teow – it really isn’t just about the food. It’s about the experience.
You cycle here from little India, get lost, refer to old school maps, and end up in a queue 1 hour later. The wizened uncle fans the spitting charcoal flame while two dozen Asian eyes flick across the shop, stealing stares at the master’s stall across the road (if you’re lucky, you get to seat in this coffee shop opposite the actual stall and wait for your noodles). There’s a curious glazed sheen to these eyes, a numb vacantness as they wait in despair, desperation, animal hunger. You wonder if yours look the same. Maybe less slinty.
But after the first sixty minutes, you settle into a peculiar, serene state of mind. Time slows down but it doesn’t matter because you’ve stopped your urgent glances at the clock. Instead, you watch the shadows of newcomers dance across your table. You exchange nods with your fellow waiting comrades and take sips of your ever-diluting tea. You watch the table next to you stir into a frenzy as their plates arrive. Phones are whipped out. They fall into silence as they eat, apart from the stray expletives of contentment.
And then your plate comes. The clear unmuddled cockles and charred noodles joust for prime spot, their notes dancing and intermingling with the charcoal-y, smoky aftertaste, and you’re done in a few minutes and you swear you’ll never wait that fucking long again for a plate of noodles. But you will, of course. It’s the best ckt in the world, after all. And you’ll never forget how it tasted or how it made you feel.
Curry Mee: Hot Bowl White Curry Mee @ Jalan Rangoon (8am-3pm, closed on Mondays)
Quite the popular little joint, this. The white curry mee itself is great, with a sweet, addictive broth. Then you add the chilli paste and it envelops the bowl and elevates it to another level. It’s fragrant, deep and rich in flavour, beyond a simple spiciness. They also have Ipoh-style chicken rice/hor fun here which was decent enough the last time I tried it. The priority at this joint is quite clear though.
Curry Mee: Lim Sisters’ Curry Mee @ Air Itam (8am-1pm everyday)
Like most of Penang’s best food, this curry mee is prepared by two sisters who look to be in their 70s or 80s, with no succession plan in place. It’s sad to think about what may happen if eventually no one takes over the reigns. Are the greatest Penang dishes doomed to fade into mediocrity? Sobering thoughts indeed.
The curry mee itself is pretty damn good. It’s lighter than some places, though this provides a good base for the chilli as well as the dried squid strips and coagulated pig’s blood. It’s also quite an experience eating it at one of the stools on the street while watching the sisters scoop and pour from their own stools. Not to be missed, even if you’re generally a fan of more potent broths.
Curry Mee: Tuai Pui @ Lebuh Kimberly (8am – 5pm, closed Wednesdays)
Possibly my favourite curry mee! Very rich and creamy broth with a mellow sweetness around the end notes. The curry chicken isn’t worth adding on, but the coagulated pork blood is one of the best in Penang and the cockles are nice and fresh. Seriously good stuff right here.
Hokkien Mee (Prawn Mee): Old Green House Hokkien Mee (8pm to 3am)
An array of porky and non-porky add-ons supplement a broth that’s not quite the best Penang has to offer, but still falls squarely within the top 5 at least. A good introduction to the delights of Hokkien Mee, given your customization options. When in doubt, max the pork options.
Hokkien Mee (Prawn Mee): Presgrave 888 @ Lebuh Presgrave (5.30pm – 12am, closed Thursdays)
My favourite hokkien mee. Add the roast belly. And intestines. And pork trotter. And ribs. Everything is great. The chili has a sharp unrelenting sting that nevertheless quickly dissipates amongst the savoury porkiness. The roast pork skin is heavenly. The broth is a mean, deep, rich concoction. That’s what it takes to be the best.
Laksa: Air Itam Laksa (11.30am – 7pm)
No real introductions required for this iconic stall. Expect a tantalizing, rich broth and decent-sized chunks of fish. A lot of detractors dislike it but I still find it a satisfying experience.
Nasi Dalca: Nasi Dalca Rahim (7.30pm-2am)
In many ways, this is rather like the watered-down version of Nasi Kandar, which admittedly does make it good for someone not a fan of the more in-your-face flavours of Nasi Kandar. The fried chicken was very dry and tough though, would recommend getting a curry chicken or something of the sort.
Nasi Kandar: RIP Line Clear
First of all, let us remember the OG Line Clear, which was truly fantastic while it lasted. The flood-mix of curries has yet to be rivalled in my experience, though there are a fair number of places I’ve yet to try out. I certainly hope the same orgasmic confluence of sauces exists somewhere else. Line Clear has now fragmented into the Kg Baru outpost (absolutely horrendous the single time I tried it) and the one that remains in Penang (which I also hear is terrible).
Nasi Kandar: Nasi Kandar Beratur, Jln Kapitan Keling (opens around 10pm)
It’s not the visually most attractive of Penang food, but taste-wise it’s fantastic. The beef curry and squid eggs are exquisite. So too are most of the dishes. There’s a long queue that only starts at 10pm (get used to the strange Penang opening hours) but good lord, is it worth it. Ask them to do a “kuah banjir” where they mix various curries and somehow end up with a greater-than-its-parts result.
For me, this is your next best bet now that Line Clear has suffered a chilling demise (although I haven’t been to a number of contenders touted as the new king). One of my favourite memories of Penang remains cycling out in the middle of the night for a Nasi Kandar supper and revelling in the simple pleasure of just how delicious it is. In many ways, Nasi Kandar remains one of the core pillars of Penang food. You can’t quite find anything of the same calibre in, say, Kuala Lumpur.
Pizza: Yin’s Sourdough Pizza @ Wisma Yeap Chor Ee (8am-10pm, closed Wednesdays)
When I went, the crust needed a bit of work (too limp for our preference) but don’t let that stop you from one of the better pizzas in Malaysia. They do an impressive margherita rendition though the tomatoes were noticeably lacklustre. You need really fresh, ripe tomatoes for a good base.
Roti Canai: Roti Canai @ Jalan Transfer (7.30am – 11am or so):
It’s good. One of my favourite roti canai places, actually. I love the chicken curry in particular, whilst the mutton is still pretty good but can be a bit tough sometimes. The curries are very one-note, but luckily that’s a supremely pleasing note. The roti itself is crispy enough when ordered separately but admittedly isn’t the crispiest out there. Pares fantastically with the curries though!