Known for its reputation as a foodie haven where dozens of styles mix and match, Penang misses the boat entirely on one count as far as I’m concerned. With all the amazing noodle soups including Hokkien Mee, Laksa, Wanton Mee and various others, trying to find a simple bowl of Vietnamese Pho is like searching for water in the desert. One of my favorite styles of food, Vietnamese is unknown and sadly lacking everywhere in Penang. Unsure why a nation so close to Malaysia remains absent from the local cuisine, I’ve seen bizarre food outlets like “authentic Mexican cuisine” a handful of places calling themselves “New York style” pizza and “western style” pub food where they don’t understand that only Europeans put mayo on burgers and fries. Desperately looking for my fix of Bun Rieu, salad rolls, vermicelli noodles and grilled pork served with that delicious simple Vietnamese sauce, I recently scoured the Internet and came up with a whopping three choices when prompting Google for help. Ruling out the first option, a place known as No Eyed Deer because they serve only an average tasting bowl of Pho for weekend brunch, that didn’t leave much more considering the island has over 8,000 choices for food.
Noticing one of the remaining two eateries was near the strangely named Penang Times Square Mall, we saw there was an annual book fair across from a hilariously named hotel (see the picture) so we asked our favorite neighbors if they wanted to make a day trip that included lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant. Known as Huong Que, we drove up the umpteen circular levels one drives up in Penang to get to the parking area of the mall’s garage and found our way back down five levels to the street. (I’m unsure why engineers decided that the top four floors of every mall should be dedicated to parking but I know they tend to be empty because there’s usually a “premium” basement level parking option. Most pMalaysians would rather shell out a ringgit of two than walk an extra fifteen steps). Crossing the street in the world’s most pedestrian friendly nation (sarcasm intended) took some skills that car-less expats like us eventually pick up like holding your hand up and running between packed traffic. Entering the small restaurant we found about six small cramped tables for four with little stools designed for people even shorter than me. Seeing that every employee was of Malaysian descent and understood zero about anything Vietnamese, the initial vibe wasn’t the best.
On paper, the menu looked promising, featuring a host of standard Vietnamese fare like beef noodle soups, spring rolls and grilled pork as well as some odd-looking things like snails in lemongrass sauce, duck salad and some other items that probably aren’t part of any Vietnamese diet. Seeing something called Bun Rieu, I tried to ask about the dish but the Malaysian waiter’s knowledge of English proved limited. Knowing only words like fish, noodles and beef, I took a chance and Diane ordered what looked like standard Pho with beef. Unusually brave, our neighbors ordered something that resembled a Chinese custard tart but when it arrived it came complete with a highly visible live ant walking around the food. Complaining to the waiter, they took it back without any argument and no doubt simply put it back for the next customer. Like most Malaysian eating experiences, a visit to the toilet featured a full view of the kitchen where one of the staff members blew his cigarette smoke all over the freshly cut veggies while he sat on fresh boxes of food apparently intended for customers.
Eyeballing a bit further, I discovered a tray of those custard like tart things that Peter ordered wedged between the eggs and the garbage. Watching the flies hover around the previously prepared food items that obviously sit at room temperature in a sweltering kitchen with no ventilation, the sanitary habits of this restaurant left something to be desired. Happy I ordered something that had to be cooked, my bowl of “Bun Rieu” arrived looking absolutely nothing like anything I’d eaten regularly back in Concord, California where a little old Vietnamese grandmother made the homemade specialty soup. Lacking any type of shrimp or crab paste, the slightly orange broth was flavorless, there was no discernible protein other than one or two small pieces of fatty tendon and it had no pork blood, tofu or anything resembling real Bun Rieu. Horribly disappointed, I sampled the dish they called duck salad and found it bland and the dish supposedly known as “spring rolls” turned out to be a deep-fried mess of mushy stale ingredients that no doubt contained mounds of stale cigarette smoke and came with a sauce that didn’t have one single resemblance to anything Vietnamese. Clearly not run by Vietnamese, I’m not sure I understand the positive reviews on Foursquare for this place and even if you somehow like the food, poor hygiene should keep you away from this place. Pictured below are the sale rolls with rubbery shrimp and sauce completely wrong for Vietnamese food.
Determined to try all possible Vietnamese food joints before giving up, the third time turned out to be a charm. Actually owned by Vietnamese, Kedai Makanan Ye Wei on Jalan Hutton in Georgetown was our last choice for Vietnamese food other than hopping on a plane. Sadly, our attempts to secure volunteer assignments in Vietnam seem to be a getting nowhere thanks to the non responsive actions of those we’ve written on the Workaway.info website. Since that’s a separate story, I’ll post more on that later this week and will actively ask for suggestions and advice from any of you who may have participated as a volunteer. Anyway, this eatery is close to Love Lane where the backpackers hang out and has air conditioning and five or six large tables suitable for eight people each. Once again hoping for the most basic Vietnamese treats, Diane ordered beef pho again and since I saw an item titled “Bun Rieu with crab paste”, I decided to give it another shot, thinking it couldn’t be worse than the last place.Clearly not anything like the featured picture from my old stomping ground in California, it’s still the closest thing I can find to Bun Rieu in Penang and it was much better than the ant infested excuse for a Bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup from the first place. Although the minced crab paste was minimal, it did have some fried tofu, one or two small tomatoes, limes, and a slightly spicy broth. Lacking pork blood, eggs, real tomato broth, lettuce, bean sprouts and ripe red stewed tomatoes, it blows my mind that the grandmother in Concord, California with the homemade recipes served at a local Vietnamese noodle shop is better than anything I can find here in SoutheasT Asia. But it will have to do. Diane’s soup was flavorful and almost tasted like a very good bowl of pho with the correct broth, good pork balls and decent flank.
They did have and extensive selection of other dishes in the menu and we also ordered a dish of clams in an absolutely perfect lemongrass broth that had the perfect mix of salt and vinegar. Walking to the back, they also chop up all the vegetables on the table but unlike the first shop, the kitchen looks a lot cleaner, flies weren’t running rampant and the bathroom even had a western toilet and toilet tissue. That alone makes it worth visiting. Hopefully I can hold my cravings until we get to visit Vietnam. Having travelled all the way there by bus, it seemed silly to go right back so we walked around a bit and found more interesting street art we hadn’t yet seen. With over 100 streets in Georgetown that have street art, it takes awhile to visit all off them. Here’s some of our favorites.
Drop the Puck
As regular readers probably know, we’re huge fans of the National Hockey League and adjusting to life in a tropical nation 15 time zones ahead of the west coast of North America means learning some interesting habits. Our neighbor Peter is Canadian and thankfully, subscribes to NHL Center Ice through his Apple TV connection. Saving us the hassle of looking for a sports bar that might even understand anything other than soccer, we happily took advantage. (Yes, I intentionally used the American name we made up since we already used the word football on a more violent version of the world’s most popular sport). Most hockey fans know the number one draft pick went to a Canadian phenomenon named Connor McDavid. Ironically, the now pathetic but once mighty Edmonton Oilers were the winners in last year’s draft lottery for the number one pick and the team picked him up. Having missed the playoffs for eight years in a league where even bad teams make the playoffs, this is big news in Diane’s hockey crazed hometown. Touted as the best player to come along in decades, the expectations are high. Live North American sports play somewhere between breakfast and brunch (excluding afternoon games that become late night or super early morning affairs). Armed with a fresh-baked bread, cream cheese, scrambled eggs and orange juice, Diane and I arrived right in time for the opening face off and cheered loudly while watching a game from last night. Naturally they lost anyway but at least we didn’t have to scour the island for Canadian expats desperate for their fix. All we needed was Tom Hortons coffee and some Timbits
Although the stench in the air has disappeared for now and the API (air pollution index) has dropped down to the mid 60’s which is low enough to be in the “moderate” range, Penang remains stuck with a surreal post-apocalyptic looking haze of gray that nature can’t dissipate despite several heavy rainfalls in the last few days. Occasionally, hazy sunshine peeks through but mornings remain pitch dark and dead looking with low visibility and a never ending grey on light grey. Now well into mid October, it seems the atmosphere stands little chance this year and I wouldn’t be surprised if “the haze season” becomes a permanent event like Beijing with the occasional clear day here and there. As mentioned in my last post, there’s little sense in debating, complaining or assigning blame because it is what it is. Anxious to visit Thailand next month to see anything resembling blue skies, it even paralyzed Phuket for two days last week promoting them to file a formal complaint against Indonesia. Meanwhile, the waiting game continues and hopefully we’ll get our beautiful view back before our one year lease expires. Let’s cross our fingers for nature, folks.
Cheers and thanks for reading
If you know any other Vietnamese food in Penang that we missed, please comment