I wasn't impressed when I first stepped into Penang years ago and saw the tacky, thatched roof dining area and bamboo-oriented decor. Great, I thought. Another Asian restaurant playing up Asian decorating cliches for the tourists. But in fact, the tables were packed with people of varied hues hunched over bowls of steaming soups, their chopsticks digging into noodles and their fingers clutching tea cups. After sitting down for my first meal, I was converted. Penang became my favorite restaurant in Atlanta. Despite talk of sliding quality, Penang is still a destination for grazers looking for a deal.
The menu seduces with its mix of traditional Malaysian and Thai cuisines and their heady array of spices and flavors. With hundreds of dishes to sample, it's easy to spend years discovering favorites.
Roti my canai: Start your meal with the roti canai ($2.50). Admittedly, the bowl of liquid doesn't look appetizing with its brown sauce of chicken curry and coconut milk. The sweet/spicy concoction is thinner than a paste but still has a grainy texture that works wonderfully with the accompanying warm bread, similar to a folded piece of thin, elastic naan. People get greedy with this stuff so you may have to order several for a table. The roti telur ($3.95), a pleasing alternative, fills the bread with egg, onion and green chilies -- like a stuffed pancake -- and is served with the same chicken curry-coconut milk dipping sauce.
Malaysian penicillin: I've settled on the Penang kari mee as my all-time favorite ($5.95 lunch/$6.45 dinner). The large bowl of lemon grass broth is flush with coconut milk and curry, its surface an oil-slick rainbow of orange and red chili. Take a dip and find it loaded with shredded boneless chicken, wheat noodles, large shrimp, potato chunks, bean sprouts and tofu skins. It takes maneuvering to ladle the aromatic broth with a spoon and shovel noodles and potatoes with chopsticks at the same time, and you'll be tempted to tip the bowl to your mouth and bury your nose in the stuff while slurping.
Sneaky spice: The Penang char kway teow ($5.95/$6.45) is a standout among the fried noodle choices. The flat rice noodles are stir fried with soy sauce, chili paste, shrimp, squid, bean sprouts and egg. The result is a dish that contains a dry, slow moving heat that sneaks into your palate and complements the tastes and textures of the ingredients. Mee goreng ($5.95/$6.45) are round egg noodles in a mild dried squid sauce with tofu, potatoes, shrimp and egg, but the overpowering peanut sauce used in the dish gets a bit redundant after a few bites.
Re-iced beans: As many times as I try, I'll never be a convert to the southeastern Asian idea of dessert. The ice kacang ($2.50) is a colorful muddle of coconut milk with shaved ice, red beans, corn, palm seeds, a gloppy "jelly" and rose syrup. I'll keep my beans out of my sno-cone, thank you.