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If you can travel to only one European country, pick Switzerland. With French overtones in the West, Italian in the South, and German and Austrian in the North and East, it’s a veritable continental quilt. Likewise, if you can visit only one Asian country, make it Malaysia.
This stunning, island-dotted nation whose fractured geography is hard to wrap your head around – the South China Sea splits the coastal plains of largely mountainous Peninsular Malaysia from its sister states of Sabah and Sarawak on the huge, ancient rain-forested island of Borneo – borders Thailand, Indonesia, and Brunei and shares maritime boundaries with the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam. It possesses a history of sultanates, colonial powers, and an influx of Chinese, Indians, and more. Braced by monsoons and trade winds, Malaysia is a magnificently-colored, multicultural mosaic.
Not surprisingly, this all translates into a kaleidoscopic cuisine that acts as an anthology of Asian tastes and techniques. And it’s now within our purview since Penang Town Malaysian Cuisine opened at the end of January in Virginia Beach’s Newtown Baker Crossing shopping center (near Grand Mart International Food).
Oooh, Malaysian cuisine, you think, sounds exotic. And, indeed, many of its depth-defying flavors may be new to you. But what you’ll discover here is eminently relatable. If you’re a fan of wok-fried cooking, char koay teow (stir-fried rice noodles with shrimp, squid, bean sprouts, chives, eggs, soy sauce, and chili paste) is right up your alley. And if samosas or hot and sour tom yum soup happen to be your go-to starters, you’re in luck – they’re here. In other words, if you’re in the mood for Chinese food, but your spouse wants Indian and the couple you’re double-dating with hankers for Thai, no need to draw lots. Just go to Penang Town.
“Malaysians come from all over,” says manager Evelyn Loh, taking a moment to discuss what’s influenced her native country’s food on an otherwise non-stop-busy Saturday. Her family originally hailed from China, like that of head chef Andrew Goh and most of the other employees. And just as their menu reflects their Malaysian homeland’s rich diversity, so, too, does Penang Town’s clientele. “Chinese, American, Indonesian, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese,” reels off Loh. “I’m excited by the mix.”
The couple next to me, originally from the Philippines, gleefully feasting on pork spare ribs and “salted eggs crispy chicken” (buttered, salted eggs stir-fried with a fried chicken so aromatic, a picnic might break out around it at any moment), moved to Virginia Beach from New York City. Their third time at Penang Town, their ecstasy stems not just from the juicy, bold flavors of the meal, but also the fact that they no longer have to drive to Philadelphia for their Malaysian food fix (they bypass Washington, D.C., restaurants that they think don’t measure up). “This is authentic,” they say practically in unison, nodding at their roti canai (crispy “flying bread” – named for the dough tossing that takes place during production – served with a zingy curry dipping sauce, an excellent kick-off to a meal here).
The restaurant’s style is clean, calm, minimal. Spa-like music evokes tranquility. A slatted wooden bench lines one wall, like those in eateries in New York City’s Chinatown. Open and airy, you can take in the entire place in a glance. Perhaps the most outstanding features are three stainless steel rice warmers against one wall, near the window opening into the kitchen. One is for steamed rice, one for coconut rice, one for chicken rice. “The server picks up the order at the little window, and it’s right there for them,” Loh explains the set up. “No time is wasted.” And it’s emblematic of the role rice plays in the Asian diet.
A large mound of that coconut rice dominates the center of the plate of nasi lemak (“fat rice”), oft called the national dish of Malaysia where it’s eaten throughout the day, but typically hawked from street stalls for breakfast. Small piles of different tastes and textures surround the fruit-perfumed grains like orbiting moons. They run the spectrum from lip-tingling rendang chicken curry, redolent of lemongrass and chili paste to cooling cucumber chunks, from anchovies and onions in belachan (a funky, finessed, sensuous shrimp paste; the pungent lifeblood of Malaysian cuisine) to mollifying hard-boiled egg, from perky, pickled vegetables to roasted peanuts, all surfing atop a wax-green pandan leaf garnish. You may be inclined to mix it all together, but traditionalists take some rice and a little bit of one of the sides, then return to the rice, try another side, and so on.
Many such delicious discoveries await amidst the reference points of now-familiar Asian eateries’ menu headings of poultry, beef, pork, seafood, vegetables, fried noodles, noodle soups, and fried rice. You may even wonder, should I use chopsticks or a fork? It’s your call – or do as they do in Malaysia, just use your hands. (I once read that Malaysians compare utensils to making love through a translator.) And don’t fret over spice levels. Service here is encouragingly accommodating, and the kitchen adjusts dishes from timid to full-throttle per your request.
Loh allows that the banner out front proclaiming “Soft Opening” was hung to let folks know that the menu is still being tweaked. But recent visits reveal a restaurant that has found its stride. And pride. Loh says that most everything is scratch-made and, pointing under the Authentic Spicy Curry heading to yummy rendang with chicken or beef (the luxuriant chicken curry appearing in nasi lemak), says, her face lighting up: “You can’t find this taste anywhere else, only in Malaysia.” Another house specialty, Hainanese chicken features a bone-in, cage-free bird gloriously steamed in its own stock, suitable for daubing with a vibrant chili-ginger sauce.
A must try is the Indian-inflected teh tarik (fiendishly sweetened Malaysian hot tea), and equally-famous Ipoh (one of Malaysia’s largest cities) hot or iced white coffee, so named for the condensed milk stirred into it. Ice-drenching tropical juice syrups including rambutan and lychee, and mango sticky rice for dessert, conjure up images of swaying palms and equatorial sunsets.
Loh framed vivid touristy-travel posters to decorate the walls. The pictures tempt and transport, but this new restaurant’s piquant flavors and warm service are the best PR.
WANT TO GO? 649 Newtown Road, Suite 109, Virginia Beach. 757-456-1888. Open Mon-Thurs. (except Wed. for now) from 11 am to 9:30 pm, Fri. & Sat. from 11 am to 10 pm, and Sun. from noon to 9 pm. penangtownmalaysian.com/#/ (Appetizers: $4.95-8.95, Entrees: $10.95-16.95, Weekday Lunch Specials: $9.95)