Laksa is up there with the divine tears of otherworldly beings. It soothes us in times of need. It comforts the slow march to death. It's delicately spiced broth can be an awakening or a dereliction. From the heady, infused coconut broths of the "curry mee" versions, to the sour, pungeant fish broths of "asam laksa" and a host of regional variants (Sarawak, Lemak, Nyonya etc), this magnificent bowl of tenderness welcomes anyone despite race, creed, religion or sexual orientations. All are invited to dine at the cloudy altar.
Being a casual visitor to Penang, and more specifically, Georgetown, since the turn of the millenium, I have been fortunate enough to eat at many of Penangs finest (and highest rated) laksa stalls. Peering deep into the wealth of recommendations from locals, from hotel receptionists, from taxi drivers, from friends, from old aunties and all and sundry, over the course of 2 decades I have drawn up a plan of attack and systematically tried more than I could ever remember. From street stalls where bowls are washed in unsanitary-esque buckets, to the newer slightly hip spots popping up with names to match, they range wildly in flavour, appeal and price. Some were an experience i'm happy I had, some were one i'd never want to repeat. For a local perhaps the one's I disliked was based on the fact that I wasn't spoonfed these flavours as a child, and therefore approach it from different vantage points. However, I do try to push my palette and understand new flavours, but some things just don't stick. Perhaps they tasted good for what they were but didn't necessarily tempt me to try them again.
Here is a list of Worst to First, of my bowl odyssey in Georgetown over the years:
A pungent stench
From sheer lack of willpower at getting up early enough to try this place, I failed for almost a month. One day, however, I forced my alarm to stir life into me, ordered a Grab Taxi before I could change my mind, and committed to the journey. Anthony Bourdain first turned me onto this spot by his reaction to the first spoonful captured on old videotape. Mark Wiens headed here also and seemed enraptured by the flavours. I had to make a pilgrimage, and am happy I did, but won't be repeating it any time soon.
In short, the broth was unnervingly fishy... that intense earthy fishiness that pushes dishes over the edge for my liking. However, after forcing myself to eat a large portion of it I ended up changing my mind slightly. I'll never eat it again, but it was worth the experience.
I hestitated to put this second-to-last, but caught myself getting wrapped up in sentimentality. The woman who owned this place was so sweet and friendly, that I couldn't bear to negate her to the lower rungs of ediblity. However, lets get one thing straight. None of the places on this list are bad, they are just ranked based on which I would be more likely to return to.
They do a couple of different Laksa, I only managed to try the Lemak Laksa because of other obligations, but it was tasty and slightly different to the Asam Bowls i've eaten in town. The prawn crisp was a revelation, but overall it's just a style of Laksa that I personally don't go out of my way to eat.
Located around the corner from Penang Road Famous Laksa and Rabbit Hole Cafe, this non-descript place is partly concealed by large shutters. Peer inside, dare to walk in, be welcomed by a very friendly owner, and served with a delicious bowl of Curry Mee. Everything was on point here, tho I thought the broth lacked a little bit of depth and was a touch on the sweet side.
hot bowl white curry mee
Famous for both their white curry mee (before you tarnish it with chilli paste) and their chicken, it's highly advisable to order both if you make it out here. The naming rights for what constitutes Laksa or Curry Mee in Malaysia changes with every town along the highway, so i'll include both in my list to assuage any fears of exclusion.
Having read numerous posts about the amazing broth here, I had to seek it out. The service, lets be fair, was diabolical. It almost seemed like the staff had no people skills and spent far too long hidden in the back, and not attending to needs. However, when the food tastes this good, a lot will be forgiven. Sensational curry mee with a delicious broth elevated even higher by their home-made chilli oil. Do yourself a favour and heap lots of that oil in, it's literally the difference between a good and a great bowl of soup.
penang road famous laksa
Not to be confused with "Penang Road Famous Laksa" literally 5 shopfronts down, this is the O.G. when it comes to Asam Laksa in Georgetown. The old lady outside has been managing operations here for 50 years!! Again, not my go-to form of Laksa, but I was told by a veritable old auntie that this was "the spot" to go to.
It takes a few sips to get used to the intense flavour, but when you do you'll be addicted. Half way down the bowl I started hoping it wouldn't end. I couldn't say the same about the first sip. It's a grower.
if I could only eat one bowl again:
Ok, I said it: I'm a stone-cold coconut milk soup whore. Though some of the Asam Laksa on offer in Penang is really delicious, if given the choice of a death-row dish, I would 10 out of 10 times opt for this style. There is something so decadent about the way the chilli oil seperates creating little puddles of love atop the creamy surface. There are secrets held beneath the glossy cover. Plump prawns, delicate noodles, crispy crackers, fresh mint leaves all vying for place on your next spoonful. It is an everlasting love affair of flavour and comfort.
I had delayed visiting Mews Cafe out of sheer stubborness. I had walked past a few times and seen the fanny-pack tourists sitting there lost in idle conversation and decided it wasn't my kind of restaurants. However, everytime I read articles about Laksa in Penang, Mews Cafe was exhalted in astonishing prose. One scorchingly hot afternoon I took shelter beneath a shady leaf and ordered their famous Laksa (Curry Mee) to see what all the fuss was about.
As the waiter carefully carried the bowl to my table, not wanting to spill a drop of goodness, I felt my back arch in expectation of greatness. It was stunning. Truly one of the best curry laksa you'll find in Georgetown. The broth, a touch sweet but balanced with the freshness of the herbs, the pristine seafood and wrapped in solid noodles. Whatever their family recipe is, they should guard it fiercely because this is a winner.
With Covid-19 ruining my yearly escape to Asia, i'll have to survive the winter looking at photos and counting down the days until I can go back and try some new spots.
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.
"Sadness is tempered by umami, grief by the motion of slurping, hope restored in the ladling of glistening, fatty broth"
CITIES / Places