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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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