On my last trip to Penang in December 2012 for Christmas and New Year, I have revisited three of the restaurants that I am quite fond for its own reason.
“747″ for its excellent food. It is an unusual name for a restaurant. I have written a previous post on this restaurant here. The food at 747 was the same as I can remember when I was a young boy. It is a unique style of Chinese food – a cross between “Hailam” Chinese infused with Malay and Indian spices – something that cannot be found anywhere else in a restaurant in Australia. Hailam is a small Chinese ethnic community group in Penang when they first emigrated to Penang. Hence, the rarity of the food and number of restaurants in Penang. At 747, the food is special passing down from generation to generation, including its homemade dipping sauce.
Penang people, a.k.a “Penangites”, love its Penang food. When Penangites living overseas go back to visit, their number 1 priority – alright, number 2 after family – is to dive into Penang food and feast themselves till they dropped!
My all time favourites at 747 are their “curry fish head”, “choon piah” and “inche kabin”, all of which we ordered that night. It was a quite weeknight. The place was almost empty. 747 has not changed with time. There is nothing pretentious about the place. It is a typical Penang style Chinese restaurant without the frills, and with the familiar pink table cloth and red upholstered metal framed chair. It is about the food, not the look.
As we left the restaurant, the owner let us know that the next time we are back in Penang, they will be relocated to a new premise. Perhaps next time, they should consider updating their decor in keeping with time, and renamed the restaurant from 747 to A380. We wait in anticipation to dine at their next new premise when we head back again in September this year.
747 is good value for money for the quality of the food and service. It is a family operated restaurant. Hence, the food is very much homestyle and home cooked. Our bill came to Malaysian Ringgit $75, an equivalent of AUD$32! The chicken deep fried, Inche Kabin was Malaysian Ringgit $15, Curry fish head which was a huge red snapper head for Malaysian Ringgit $40, the deep fried spring roll “Choon Piah” for Malaysian Ringgit $8, and fried bean sprout with salted fish for Malaysian Ringgit $6. Where else can we find such food in Australia? None.
“Shing Keang Aun” for its nostalgic “take me back in time” type of restaurant. It is another Hailam style Chinese restaurant. This place has been around for as long as I can remember. It was one of my grandfather’s favourite eating spot. It has been in the same place as long as my grandfather’s era, in the heritage gazette part of old George Town – a prewar style double storey row of terrace shophouses. It is located in Chulia Lane, off the extremely busy and narrow Chulia Street, popular with cheap accommodations with backpackers.
I have been to SKA since I was a young boy, but could not remember what the food was like until my sister took me there several years ago. My partner has never been there. I took him there on our most recent trip. The place itself was worth the visit. The top floor has an open food shaft where the food is transported in the pulley drawn lift. The staff are all old and been working there for generations. Places like this are getting hard to find in Penang. Unfortunately, I was not that impressed with the food on this recent trip. It was average and very expensive for what we got. The place is very popular and overrated with interstate visitors to Penang, which makes the place almost a destination by itself. That is unfortunate, as I felt the owner has increased the price to cash in on their popularity, which some may argue is nothing wrong.
Their signature dishes include Asam Prawn (tamarind prawn), Curry fish (gulai tumis) pomfret, the dark soy pork and pork liver and salted mustard soup (kiam chai teng). We started off by ordering the asam prawn, curry pomfret, dark soy pork and pork liver. They were all in very small portion. The fish cost us Malaysian Ringgit $35 (for 1 small pomfret) and the prawn dish Malaysian Ringgit $14 (5 pieces). The total bill came to Malaysian Ringgit $64, including one more dish of dark soy chicken. There was no menu in this restaurant and no written or printed bill. That was how things were done in the past. I felt we were hacked at this place being seen as tourists, even though I spoke to them in Penang hokkien. It was hard not to make a comparison with the food that we had a couple of nights ago at 747 – which was far better in serving portion, pricing and quality of the food – taste, texture and flavour. However, if you have never been to SKA, it is worth the visit for the nostalgic feel of the place – but, do ask for the price before confirming the order. “Weld Quay (Tree Top) Seafood Restaurant” for its interesting open air rustic charm with fresh seafood. This restaurant has been around for years. It is located along the historic road of Weld Quay, directly across from the Penang Ferry and RapidPenang bus terminus. I have been to this place only once a few years ago with a friend. I vaguely remember the place was interesting but a bit on the pricey end. I thought it was a good idea to revisit this place with my partner, who has never been there before.
There were separate sections in the seating area – best on the left building away from the open kitchen and deep towards the open end framed by exposed brick walls and little passageway underneath a very large old tree with clinging roots and trunks on the brick wall – giving it a feel of a jungle temple in ancient Angkor Wat. The service was fast and chaotic. The place was packed with locals and interstate tourists alike. We ordered a soft shell crab, a steamed whole fish, a deep fried calamari and a green vegetable dish. When the food arrived, we were not as excited as looking at the bygone era of the old world charm of a run down building. They looked rough and simple. The tastes were nothing complicated. The soft shell crab was soft and soggy. We had better. The fish was the biggest letdown. It was bland with little flavour, and cost us Malaysian Ringgit $60! That was the most expensive fish I ever had in Penang, even more expensive than the best fish I have tasted at a good, proper airconditioned Chinese restaurant. The bill came to Malaysian Ringgit $124 (including 2 big Tiger beer x $13 per bottle). I was totally gobsmacked and very disappointed. We felt that we have been cheated eating here as we were seen as a tourist. If Penang’s restaurants keep this trend of ripping off tourists, they will soon do themselves an injustice and disfavour. If the food was good, it will be a different story. But, it was just so average.
This is a warning for any tourist visiting Penang and especially restaurants like Sing Keang Aun and the Weld Quay (Tree Top) restaurants, which do not offer the customer menu with prices to select, or an itemised bill at the end of the meal. Be brave and ask for the price before ordering the food. Both places may be worth the visit, but the food certainly is not worth spending that kind of money. There are plenty of good places to choose from when it comes to eating out in Penang, but may not have the same old world charm like Sing Keang Aun and Weld Quay (Tree Top).
At least, 747 has the consistency of good food and good value for money. Keeping to its tradition that has passed down the generations and still catering to the same old following of loyal customers.
Sad to say, now I am only fond of 1 out of the 3 restaurants that I have revisited.