Saturday, 15 September 2012

A Review of Penang Road Cafe - a taste of Penang at Novena

The food war between Malaysia and Singapore has raged unabated in 2012.  Earlier in the year, we were treated to the annual spectacle (debacle) of "who invented yee sang"?  Things got a little more heated when foreign powers sought to intervene in the conflict, with Virtual naming Bangkok, Singapore and Penang as its readers' top three street food destinations, in that order.  The final straw was when Singaporean chef Michael Han, the proprietor of the in-hiatus Fat Duck / Noma-inspired Fifty-Three restaurant committed an act of treason by publicly declaring that Penang's street food tasted better and looked better than Singapore's.  Ouch.

Then I saw this place.

A couple of doors down from the famous Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice, Penang Road Cafe has been wowing the crowds with its renditions of Penang hawker favourites.  In this age of diplomatic tension, could détente be achieved at Penang Road Cafe, a solitary outpost at Novena Ville trying to spread the gospel of Penang food?  Even if Malaysians and Singaporeans (and Americans, I'm looking at you, Virtual readers) cannot agree on which is best, perhaps we could agree that we all enjoy authentic Penang hawker food and celebrate our similarities instead of emphasising our differences?

To ascertain whether its mission had any prospect of success, we first need to sample its wares.  For some reason, it's always been closed when I walked past, so I made it a point to pay it a special visit today for lunch.

Penang Road Cafe is air-conditioned and comfortable enough, but not's let get too carried away; you're not going to want to spend three hours here fiddling over your lor bak
The interior of Penang Road Cafe

The menu here is small enough to squeeze onto one side of A4, including appetisers, drinks and desserts.  It is pretty much a "greatest hits" selection of Penang hawker food, so your Penang Hokkien mee, char kway teow, Penang assam laksa, Penang Rojak, lor bak are all here.  I would have loved to have seen a good Penang chee cheong fun with its dark, pungent prawn paste and a good oh chien (oyster omelette with tapioca flour "jelly"), but I appreciate that they want to keep the selection down to a manageable number in order to preserve the quality.

Well, when a place has "Penang"  in its name, you have to start with char kway teow, don't you?

Penang Char Kway Teow - S$7.00
I think we need a close-up of that:
I like, no, love that they don't mix the kway teow with the yellow noodles as do 99% of char kway teow sellers in Singapore. While it could do with a bit more caramelisation and wok hei (and a section of fresh lime on the side to squeeze over and cut the grease), I do like the crunchy beansprouts, which provide a nice textural counterpoint.  Admittedly, it's not a match for top-tier Penang practitioners such as Sisters, or my regular Ipoh CKT dealer at Woolley Food Centre where they use the smoother-than-Shaft Ipoh hor fun.  However, it is certainly better than any other version I have encountered in Singapore.  A luxurious version of this dish is available with crab meat, etc. for S$10.00.
Next, Penang Hokkien mee
 Penang Hokkien Mee - S$7.00
Excellent.  The soup is a revelation, spicy and rich with prawn and pork flavour, and it doesn't love you too thirsty afterwards either.  While it's not quite the same beast, I prefer the stock here to that of the famous Pek Kio prawn noodles.  A luxurious version of this dish (with pork ribs, as opposed to pork strips) is available for S$10.00.
My wife had a Penang Assam laksa. 
Penang Assam Laksa - S$7.00
While the soup had a nice elevated lime-y and tamarind flavour, it lacked the prawn paste punch. They do give you a little dish of the good stuff on the side, though, so you can add more to suit your needs. A luxurious version of this dish with white truffles is available during the season for S$100.00.*
Just a word of warning: the servings here are massive - a food hoover-upperer like me could only manage to finish my Hokkien mee and most of the CKT before having to tap out.  So please don't complain about having to pay seven bucks for a bowl of noodles (they also don;t levy service charge or GST).  I saw a few tempting bowls of fluoro-coloured ais kacang and cendol leaving the kitchen but they would have to wait for another time.
All in all, a really good lunch, and a reminder of the true flavours of Penang.  I reckon Penang Road Cafe serves the best Penang hawker food in Singapore, and its Hokkien mee is certainly in the running for the title of best soup noodle dish.  While it may not be enough to bring peace to the world or even the Causeway, I certainly did feel a little less grumpy after lunch.
*May not actually exist.
275 Thomson Road
#01-08 Novena Ville
Tel: +65 6256 3218
Closed Mondays


  1. what happened to the real stuff??Penang itself where some nonyas are still waking up at 4am to start making their rempah udang,ang ku koi, bee koh or kuih talam..where some hokkien mee stalls have queues and only regulars have the priviledge to call the mobile of the store for take away..where a plate of char koay teow at Lorong Selamat commands a 40-minute waiting period...almost gastronomique, I'd say.:)Bonne appétit!

  2. The real stuff? Sadly, I haven't had the chance to visit Penang since I started this blog, what with the demands of a young family, etc. I absolutely love and miss Penang food; our tradition when we drove from Ipoh to Penang was to go straight to Hock Chuan Heong for lunch, with all our baggage still in the boot. Their o chien and ba ki t'ng are simply irresistable, true comfort food!

    But I take it you know I am based in Singapore, and I believe Penang Road Cafe is the best Penang food available here. Like I acknowledge, it's not a match for the "real stuff", but it's not a bad alternative.

  3. If you don't 'crawl' the streets to smell for great heavenly street hawker cuisine, you ain't taste the world famous heavenly, genuine food of Penang.
    'crawl' = take time to discover, taste & enjoy Penang's Ori-Maestros' irresistible street hawker food. No copy cat, no bak so added for bad fusion.

  4. Ummm...ok, Tunglang, thanks for your comment (I think).

    Given my post was about a now-closed restaurant serving what I thought was the best Penang food in Singapore, and in view of my own comment above, I am intrigued by your comment and its relevance to the subject matter at hand.