George Town: The Foodie Capital That Wasn’t

Bowl of noodles, George Town, Penang

A rather tasteless and unpleasant bowl of noodles

We arrived in George Town, Penang, with high expectations and rumbling bellies. Our expectations were set by the countless articles we had read describing this small island city as the foodie capital of Malaysia. Some folks went so far as to crown George Town’s street food as the best in all of Asia, which is high praise considering how outrageously delicious we found northern-Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.

Our empty stomachs, meanwhile, were the result of a strategic decision to skip lunch on our way into town. We were so eager to get started we wanted to hit the ground chewing.

And while we came to George Town hungry, we didn’t land blind. Before arriving we read extensively about what to eat in this provincial capitol. Somehow, though, none of the articles we devoured told us anything about when to eat. It’s almost like they withheld the secret decoder ring to the city. Even after a week of trying, we never did figure it out.

Joo Hooi Cafe is supposed to serve one of the best  asam laksas in the city, although we'd never know because they're closed

Joo Hooi Cafe is supposed to serve one of the best asam laksas in the city, although we’d never know because they were closed

Partly we blame our frustrating food experience on Chinese New Year; an annual celebration that lasts for fifteen days, or forever depending on your perspective. And partly we blame it on the food, which mostly wasn’t that good.

Take Mee Goreng, for example. We sought out this multi-cultural fusion dish from a street-side hawker that some claim cooks up the best version in the city. I sure hope that isn’t true because what he served us was an oily mess of noodles vaguely reminiscent of Pad Thai, only without the flavor.

Having struck out with this recommendation, we tried another vendor at random. This time we ended up with a bowl of rubbery chicken, atop mushy noodles, all swimming in a thin broth (see above). It wasn’t exactly inedible, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone make a pilgrimage to Penang for it either.

At least in those two previous experiences we found someone dishing up local fare. Far more often we struggled. For a city renowned for its street food, we had a remarkably hard time finding something to eat.

(We lucked into a good curry mee at this coffee shop only to find it closed when we went back for another round. An all too common experience for us.)

Scouting out the town for specific vendors or restaurants was basically a waste of time. The food stalls we’d pass one night were gone the next. Entire street markets would appear and disappear seemingly at random. We’d walk by places that looked cool during the day only to find them closed when we returned in the evening. There was no rhyme or reason for when, or why, or how long things were open. The only thing that seemed consistent was that wherever we chose to go was closed when we got there.

And that might not have been quite so annoying if George Town wasn’t quite so sprawling. Many of the recommended eateries were 2 kilometers or more from the old-town location where we were based. And unlike everywhere else we visited in Asia, there were no taxis to speak of. We couldn’t just flag a passing tuk-tuk or a songthaew to take us where we wanted to go. Instead we’d walk 20 minutes to a food seller we heard good things about only to find them completely shuttered.

This entire street was filled with food vendors on other nights we were heading somewhere else. Tonight its a ghost town because we planned to eat here.

This entire street was filled with food vendors on other nights we were heading somewhere else. Tonight its a ghost town presumably because we planned to eat here.

We had so much difficulty locating George Town’s celebrated street food that we mostly subsisted on Indian fare, and not because it was especially good. In fact, after three different attempts at three different places we can say we had better Indian food in the most touristy sections of Thailand’s Koh San Road and Railay Beach than from the street-side kitchens in George Town. But at least the Indian joints were reliably open for business.

It occasionally happens that we find ourselves out of sync with a city. And that was certainly true with George Town. Nothing seemed to go right.

Well, almost nothing.

We did eventually find one great open air restaurant that served some of the best double fried pork I’ve ever had. Just as we started tucking into our meal, though, we noticed a commotion over our shoulder. I turned to look as the wait staff hurriedly closed some shutters against an ominous looking cloud that had started billowing in through the windows.

Shannon beams in the pre-fumigation glow of a good meal

Shannon beams in the pre-fumigation glow of a good meal

A moment later a man walked in front of the restaurant pumping more of the grey-green gas from a contraption strapped to his back. Uncertain what to do as the fumes made their way inside, I looked around at my fellow diners for guidance. I watched in silent amazement as they nonchalantly covered their drinking glasses with their palms and carried on as if they hadn’t just been fumigated.

That turned out to be our favorite meal from our week-long food odyssey in George Town, the foodie capital of Malaysia.

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15 Comments on “George Town: The Foodie Capital That Wasn’t”

  1. lovetotrav May 18, 2015 at 8:34 am #

    Interesting isn’t it that everything I have read too raves about this area for its food? And then it doesn’t match up… sometimes the place or the time or both are just not in sync and it doesn’t happen… except for your one contaminated restaurant! I guess that is why we travel… to find out for ourselves. Happier eating elsewhere, Cheryl


    • Brian May 19, 2015 at 12:21 am #

      Yeah, sometimes it happens. In our case I’m not sure whether we’d have had better luck if we were there when it wasn’t Chinese New Years or if maybe the place just doesn’t deserve its reputation. Hard to say without going back.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. mytimetotravel May 18, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    Yep, I was disappointed in Georgetown too, and I was there a bit before CNY, I did have a good afternoon tea at the E&O, and I found a nice little place for breakfast, and a chain of coffee shops with good AC and free wifi, but great food, not so much. I even ate at a place that had been on an Anthony Bourdain episode, but the food was actually better round the corner at Hot Wok.


    • Brian May 19, 2015 at 12:26 am #

      It’s interesting to hear you say that. I have a sneaking suspicious that travel writers as a group are writing the things they think they’re supposed to say (“George Town food is ‘da BEST!”) rather than what they actually experienced.


  3. africanagirl May 18, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

    In Malaysia just as for Singapore, I reckon there are three distinct influences..Chinese, Indian and Malay..I am not so fond of the noodles and watery broths..but when it comes to Indian..I’m blown away by the great taste..


  4. Navigating Dad May 18, 2015 at 5:50 pm #

    have you tried visiting Gurney Plaza? there must have restaurants there too


    • Brian May 19, 2015 at 12:28 am #

      The shopping mall 5km from old town? No, we didn’t try there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Navigating Dad May 19, 2015 at 3:33 am #

        it’s worth visiting there too. though it’s not that plush but you can find a lot of Malaysian stuff


  5. kokazaweko May 19, 2015 at 3:25 am #

    mmmm 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Upasna | Life On My Plate May 21, 2015 at 11:10 pm #

    I had also heard great things about the food in George Town. It’s unfortunate that your experience wasn’t that great 😦


  7. Bama August 30, 2015 at 3:29 am #

    I came to George Town a few days ago with such a low expectation on its food after reading this post. But I guess so far I’m lucky to have the same experience many share in terms of the city’s culinary scene. I’ve tried mee curry, nasi kandar, kerabu, and assam laksa and they are all amazing! This comes from someone who grew up eating Indonesian food — known for its rich and complex flavors. I guess you should give the city another chance! 🙂


    • Brian August 30, 2015 at 3:38 am #

      Good to hear. And thanks for reporting back what you found. I don’t doubt that we had an unusual experience. We were there during Chinese New Year so maybe all the good spots were closed. I will say we did have a good curry mee, and some good double roasted pork (at the Chinese restaurant where we got fumigated 😛 ) but other than that, feeding ourselves in Georgetown was a frustrating bust for us.

      Next time we’ll have to plan around Chinese New Year. We’ll also head into town with lower expectations, which will definitely help. 😀

      Liked by 1 person


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