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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the June 4, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Out to Lunch: Penang

Penang, open in Nassau Park for just a month, is already

packing in Route 1 workers on their lunch breaks. Featuring Malaysian

and Thai cuisine, the restaurant is just two doors down from the Borders

in Nassau Park.

I heard about the place from my neighbors, who raved about the food

— and the low prices. On a Saturday evening foray to CompUSA,

I suggested to the spouse that we try it. A quick look at the mob

waiting outside confirmed Penang’s popularity, and also doomed our

plan. We contented outselves with the Subway sandwich shop two doors

to the left.

Penang’s lunchtime crowds are less formidable, but still, when my

dining companion and I arrived at 12:50 p.m., the long, not-so-narrow

dining room was completely full, and 10 people were standing in line

at the hostess desk.

Our wait was not long, however. Servers moved quickly among the tables

— all in cherry wood, and arrayed so that it is easy to push them

together to accommodate groups of varying sizes. In keeping with a

modern Asian/industrial decorating scheme, Penang is spare. There

are no banquettes or rich fabrics. One long wall sports corrugated

aluminum attached so that its rope-topped edge curves gently, reaching

up toward the stylized copper birds that fly over it. Other walls

are orange — shot through with deep red and yellow accents —

and tan, topped by abstract wisteria-like blossoms.

After looking over the room, and admiring a vase of springtime pussy

willows near the door, it was time to sit down. The wait had been

just about five minutes.

Bright orange chop sticks set on white napkins waited at our table,

which was set a decent distance away from its neighbor, but definitely

close enough to catch snatches of conversation. Menus and glasses

of water arrived right away. Along with the regular menu there was

a one-page "Express Lunch" menu, listing about a dozen meals

— entre, rice, and soup — for $6.95 each.

Information on the menu stated that Penang is one of a small chain

of family-owned restaurants, most of which are in New York City. It

also revealed that Penang is one of 13 Malaysian states and that Malaysian

cooking is influenced by many cultures, Chinese, Indian, Portuguese,

Dutch, British among them.

The menu suggests that patrons try roti canai, described as "the

all-time favorite Malaysian crispy Indian style pancake, served with

curry chicken as a dipping sauce." My dining pal and I ordered

it as an appetizer (at $2.95), and are now completely addicted. A

towering, twisting, airy, buttery, grilled bread, it would have been

wonderful alone, but was even better dipped into the saucer of curried

chicken that accompanied it.

My companion, who enjoys Asian food everywhere from

Chinatown to downtown Princeton, ordered Thai basil beef and I went

with tofu with mango, both on the express menu. Our soup, a mild broth

with tofu, arrived immediately, and was followed in just a couple

of minutes by one entre, then the appetizer, and then the second entre.

Not the perfect order, but very quick service indeed, and obviouly

designed to fulfill the "express" promised by the menu.

"This is leaps and bounds above other Asian restaurants,"

my dining partner exclaimed. He promptly decided to change a lunch

date with a friend he is taking out to celebrate a new job. They will

now rendezvous at Penang.

I was every bit as enthusiastic about my tofu with mango. The tofu

was piping hot, airy, and suffused with the taste of mango. A generous

amount of julienned mango, along with a few strips of red pepper,

completed the colorful picture. My dish was mild — just the way

I like it — while my lunch date’s Thai beef was considerably more


I asked him if the portion was large enough and he, a strapping 27-year-old

fresh off two months on the Atkins diet, said "not quite."

He and I both agreed, however, that there was plenty to satisfy most

lunch-time appetites. We noticed, in fact, that a sextet of nurses

seated behind us had doggie bags on their table. The men next to us,

who ordered from the regular menu, had been served portions that were

perhaps twice the size of those on the Express Lunch menu. At one

point, I heard them talk about running low on rice. But while the

pleasant, extremely efficient servers were stretched to the max, with

little time to provide a higher level of service.

In the interest of research (well, largely for that reason), we would

have tried a dessert or two. A Malaysian chemistry professor, the

friend of a friend, has visited Penang twice and reports that chendol,

shaved ice with green pea flour strips and red beans served in a brown

coconut syrup, is good, especially if ordered without the red beans.

But our check came so quickly, and our server left so soon after delivering

it, that we had no chance to ask for a dessert menu.

For most office workers on a one-hour lunch break, this service is

fine, even ideal. Penang is set up to get lunchtime customers in and

out in well under an hour. From our observation, this would be true

even for fairly large groups, making the restaurant a good choice

for office birthday or farewell lunches. The restaurant is noisy though,

and would not be an ideal place to meet a sweetheart or to close a


For outstanding food at prices that don’t top McDonald’s by much,

however, Penang is a real find. It accepts Visa and MasterCard, but

only if the tab exceeds $25. Delivery, with a $15 minimum, is available

(call 609-897-9088 or fax to 609-897-0883). The restaurant does not

have a liquor license, but it is BYOB.

Penang is open from 11 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. from Monday through Thursday

and from 11 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. on Friday through Sunday. Should

there be a wait, there is a bench out front and Borders is a short

stroll away. The food is well worth the wait.

Kathleen McGinn Spring

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