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Dec 20, 2012 06:28 PM

Penang run-down

Penang is one of the better Asian restaurants in Boston, I think.

Here's a run-down of some things I've gotten there, along with the grade they earned once safe inside my gullet:

Curry Mee with Young Tau Foo
Grade: A
One of the most surreal, outrageous and compelling things one can eat in Boston. It's a fragrant curry-broth soup with two kinds of noodles, big dog-ear flaps of fried tofu skin, fish-paste stuffed inside bitter gourd slices, fish-paste stuffed inside eggplant, some random bobbing fish balls, green onion, fish-paste stuffed inside some other sort of vegetable and... and.... Dude, I actually have no idea what this dish is, but I've now eaten it hundreds of times and it's a part of me. A very special part of me.

Assam Ikan Bilis
Grade: B
It's best not to stare at this dish for too long. It's a zillion tiny anchovies in a very tangy tamarind-onion sauce. Good to share, but I doubt you'll want more than five or six bites because the tiny fish are very chewy and the jaw quickly tires of them.

Satay Bean Curd (appetizer)
Grade: B
Unremarkable but refreshing and inoffensive. Good for mild-tempered conservative types and young teenagers.

Chow Kueh Teow
Grade: A
One of the best noodle dishes in Chinatown. Smoky and rich; tastes like the noodles themselves were mesquite-grilled.

Ipoh Bean Sprouts (appetizer)
Grade: B+
A very pleasant appetizer for the man who just can't get enough bean sprouts (did you not know he existed?)

Achat (appetizer)
Grade: C+
Turmeric-covered vegetable pickles; I think there's a good reason I've forgotten these, but I can't quite remember it.

Penang Pad Thai
Grade: B+
This is a boring choice at a place full of gutsy options, but it's undeniably a fine version.

Indian Mee Goreng
Grade: B+
Full of flavor, but a little "ketchupy" for my taste.

Mee Siam
Grade: B+

Seafood Scrambled Egg Chow Fun
Grade: B+
Slightly smoky chow fun noodles drenched in a warming, soupy egg broth with some shrimp and squid lazing about. Gross in its way, but deeply comforting, especially in the winter.

Clay Pot Pearl Noodle\
Grade: B+
Similar to the above, but with thinner noodles.

Asam Laksa
Grade: A-
PUNGENT. Try it at your own risk, but at least once in your lifetime. The waiters will try to warm you away from it. But be bold, my friend.

Prawn Mee
Grade: A
A marvelously rich shrimp broth with two kinds of noodles. One of the top soups in this town, for my money.

Seafood Tomyam with Rice Noodles
Grade: B-
Skimpy on the seafood and a touch too sour, but I've never liked this soup anywhere so I'm not a good judge of it.

House Special Fried Nasi Lemak
Grade: A-
Mild, light, subtle and clean-tasting, without the slightest hint of greasiness. A new frontier for the greaseball genre of fried rice.

Shrimp with String Beans Malaysian Style
Grade: A
The most perfectly-cooked string beans; the most perfectly smoky shrimp; the most addictive dried shrimp-paste "sauce".... For the sake of all who live, just eat this my friend.

Shrimp with Lady Fingers Malaysian Style
Grade: A
The same as they above, but with okra instead of string beans.

Penang House Special Squid
Grade: A-
Tangy and pungent. It's squid in a sauce similar to the Assam Ikan Bilis sauce. Not very filling, but unusual!

Sambal Shrimp
Grade: B+
Shrimp in tangy sauce with onions; same basic genre as the House Special Squid but not quite as good. Too many onions.

Fried Ice Cream
Grade: B-
Breading a bit too thick; ice cream all melted inside. Why taunt us!!?

Grade: A
A dada dessert: kidney beans, corn, wiggly stuff, chewy stuff, shaved ice, coconut sauce, more wiggly stuff, whatever just get it.

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  1. Fantastic rundown! I know at least a few quadi-scientific hounds here who will dig this post, besides me. Thanks!!

    1 Reply
    1. re: yumyum

      agreed. Nice reminder of what Penang offers and that they do a good job. The smoky wok hei is better here than at most Ctown places since the Chinatown Eatery places closed.

    2. Far OUT! This place is almost never discussed on CH, so your post is terrifically helpful. We used to frequent the one in Harv Sq but i don't think you mentioned my personal favorite- a wedge of deep fried tofu, cut open and stuffed w/ slivered cucumber, bean sprouts and peanut sauce. (I always added soy sauce because it was too sweet for me otherwise.)

      And what about the deep fried nest of taro, filled with veggies?Love that taro.

      And they used to sometimes have a wonderful dessert of cubed taro and black rice in coconut milk.

      Btw, for historical architecture fans, the only extant HHRichardson office bldg is attached to the right side of Penang and was just restored (look up at those windows to apprecate it.)
      thx again, jeff.

      5 Replies
      1. re: opinionatedchef

        Great tips, especially on the architecture!! Do you remember the name of that fried taro veggie dish? I think I'll try that next time. The taro dessert also sounds fantastic. I actually live in Cambridge but I moved here after the Harv Sq location closed. Why did it close, anyway? It would have very little competition among Asian restaurants in the immediate Harvard vicinity, and I would have predicted it'd be a huge surefire hit-- good thing I don't play the stock market, heh!

        1. re: eatinjeff

          I went to Penang in Chinatown for the first time in the mid-90's, and it was an eye-opening experience for me, as much as going to Siam Garden was in the 1980s.

          I eagerly awaited the opening of the Harvard Square branch, which took far longer than expected, maybe a year behind schedule. It was good, but not as good as the Chinatown mothership. Then there were some shenanigans and the name changed to Rendang, with exactly the same menu, as if there was some family strife or something. And then shortly after it closed. Don't know why, it did pretty good business, maybe the rent was too high?

          1. re: Uncle Yabai

            I don't know about shenanigans, but the family who owned the Penang in Harvard Square (and I believe still owns the Penang in Boston, as well as several other branches) sold the Harvard Square branch to new owners, which is why the name changed to Rendang. I don't know why they subsequently closed, but it's hard to run a restaurant. In Harvard Square in particular, all good restaurants eventually become medicore gastropubs and/or bank branches. I am waiting for the "bank of america house tavern" to open someday. =)

            1. re: lipoff

              Unlike, of course, those idiots at the Bombay Club, which had a perfectly decent business for many years in Harvard Square, decide that "downtown" is a better bet given their pretensions, and are goners within a couple of years.

          2. re: eatinjeff

            sorry jeff; i have no idea why it closed. it was there a 'long' time, relatively speaking. sorry don't knw the name of any of the dishes; you'd have to look thru the menu, or ask them (maybe some are off the menu but they still do them.)

        2. Thoroughly enjoyed your post as it reminded me how much I enjoy Penang and it has been awhile since my last visit. I always liked starting my meal with the roti and sometimes splurged on the stuffed version. In the summer I am driven there for their watermelon beverage and I always order some sort of shrimp dish

          1. Great post. I haven't been in years. Must try the Laksa. I have 2 to compare it to. Sydney Aus restaurant 25 years ago and #1 Noodle House last week. Why do they try and steer you away? Spice level? Too rich w/ coconut and people expect Pho like broth?

            6 Replies
            1. re: trufflehound

              The laksa is admittedly intimidating to look at: it's covered in a brown layer of mackerel shavings and looks like... I won't say, heh. And it's not overly spicy, but it's very highly spiced and pungent-- like something off the "Authentic Thai" part of the menu at Brown Sugar. It's also quite sour...!

              1. re: trufflehound

                Trufflehound, the laksa you had in Sydney is more likely to have been the 'curry mee' than the 'Assam laksa' on Penang's menu: in Aus, 'laksa' refers to curry laksa/curry mee, and Assam laksa is called by its full name to distinguish it. And, as someone who fell in love with curry laksa while living in Sydney, I have to disagree with Jeff and say that Penang's is just not that good. It might be different if I hadn't had it elsewhere, but the curry laksa at Penang (like No. 1 Noodle House, the only other place I've found curry laksa in Boston) tastes very thin to me - the flavour isn't deep enough or savoury enough.

                I can't fault Boston for this too much, seeing as there isn't a Malaysian population here to speak of (there's a Malaysian food thread running at the moment, for more info on this topic); but it's a disappointment to me because when the weather is cold and raw, a big bowl of curry laksa can warm me like nothing else.

                1. re: TimTamGirl

                  I'm glad for this info-- I've never had this dish anywhere else, so I wasn't sure if what Penang makes is authentic, representative, or even remotely acceptable to people who actually have experience with other versions..!

                  1. re: eatinjeff

                    I haven't had anything else at Penang, so I can't comment on the rest of the menu, but the laksa was a huge disappointment to me: it's my favourite food in the whole world, and in Sydney it's *everywhere* - enough that there are restaurants that specialise in it - so it's tough not having a passable version available. I've tried working with a chef friend to re-create it at home and we did a decent job, but were hampered by the fact that she'd never had it before and I don't have enough of a food vocabulary to describe exactly what was missing... and the smell of the shrimp paste in the curtains for weeks was a bit of a disincentive to trying again. :)

                    1. re: TimTamGirl

                      That's really interesting, I never knew that about Sydney! I hope you'll let us know if you find a good rendition anywhere in the region (or even in nyc). Is it normal for the soup to be covered in those mackerel-shavings, or was that strange touch an "artistic" liberty of Penang's?

                      1. re: eatinjeff

                        I never took to Assam laksa myself - it's curry laksa that I cry for - so I'm not best placed to say if the mackerel shavings were par for the course. I will say that Penang's curry laksa/curry mee surprised me by being as seafood-heavy as it was: I'm used to prawns and chicken as the norm, with multiple variations available; Penang's only version had fish, fish balls, and shellfish. It might just be that they're very into seafood.

              2. Thank you for the yummy post which reminds me that I need to go for my fix of House Special Squid and Roti. I do really like the food here and I'm glad to see it get a little love.