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Sakae Sushi

Kaiten, a.k.a. conveyor belt sushi, was oddly popular in the malls of both Penang and Bangkok. The glory didn’t belong to a single chain either; competitors resided on the same floors or one above the other like Sushi King and Sakae Sushi in Gurney Plaza.

Sakae sushi exterior

We chose Sakae Sushi, a Singaporean chain, which I’m now seeing has/had (the URL is dead) a midtown and West Village location. I had no idea. I would not be surprised if this hyped in 2008 restaurant was already kaput because the food isn’t anything special once you get past the novelty.

But if I’m in a foreign country for at least five days, I feel ok with branching out into other cuisines than what’s native. We’d crammed in so much laksa, rojak, satay and char kway teow into our first few days in Penang that I was ready for something lighter, maybe Japanese. Inevitably we ended up with lots of ricey/fried dishes so my original intent was lost.

Sakae sushi conveyor belt

I was a little excited about the touch screens at each table so you could order with zero human interaction, but we got the loser space for two with a broken monitor. This was a strange aspect of Penang—we always got horrible seats. Others had huge booths for small groups while we got a cramped tiny table hidden in the back. Being the only Westerner in a place can go two ways—either you get uncomfortable, over-the-top service or the staff gets weirded out and tries not to interact with you. This was the latter.

You pay by the plate, which are color coded. On the low end a green plate of simple vegetarian sushi might cost 60 cents and a special black plate prawn concoction with kimchi and tomatoes might cost $3.75. Nothing is outrageously priced, which is why we were surprised that we managed to spend $45 (tax and 10% service charge included—to tip or not to tip always posed such a dilemma), our most expensive meal in Malaysia at that point. A couple Tiger beers were also involved.

Sakae sushi eel roll

Eel-wrapped something or another.

Sakae sushi roll

Some cheapo crab stick, omelet sushi.

Sakae sushi soft shell crab

Soft shell crab tempura with ponzu dipping sauce off the menu.

Sakae sushi sashimi

Sashimi, also off the menu. They go for practicality over presentation, leaving the icepack beneath the raw seafood.

Sakae sushi chicken

Fried chicken nuggets. I grabbed the plate because of the fish cake sails.

Sakae sushi mackerel

I just like the fried fish head popping out of the roll.

Sakae sushi tempura roll

Tempura’d sushi.

Sakae Sushi * Gurney Plaza 170-03-87/88/89, Penang, Malaysia

Line Clear Nasi Kandar

Unlike my first gluttonous foray into nasi kandar, point-and-pick Indian-Muslim food over rice, I showed restraint on my second visit to Penang. I might’ve ordered more this time too, but I go with the flow when I’m not completely familiar with a dining style.

Line clear nasi kandar serving

“White rice or biryani?” was the first question. Plain, trying to save calories (I kid…sort of). The New Yorker in me can’t bear holding up lines, so no time was wasted with the “What’s in that pan?” game. I identified chicken curry and settled on that. I would’ve liked something from the sea, maybe squid eggs, as well. My contemplative mood was ended by, “What vegetable?” Uh ok, green beans, then. “Cabbage?” That seemed like a requirement…so, yes. Then the guy manning the station ladles gravy from different dishes, not necessarily the ones you ordered, onto the rice. See? You don’t really need the biryani.

Line clear nasi kandar plate

Some people eat with their hands, some don’t. Everyone eats quickly and no one wastes a speck. Even though I didn’t load up with a zillion different items like at Kayu Nasi Kandar (now out of business), this was a lot of food. I wouldn’t normally eat all of this rice, but to leave food behind seemed very American and grotesque and I have a hard enough time throwing away food as it is.

Nasi kandar kitten

Clearly, there are scraps to be had. This tiny cat had a chicken bone to herself. 85% of the felines I’ve encountered in SE Asia are unusually small, angular-faced and have short tails, not like manxes but half the length or a typical US cat, with stubs on the end like they’ve been broken. This cat’s tail doesn’t extend behind the table leg, what’s pictured is the end of it. My cat weighs over 20 pounds even though I feed her as much as our normal-sized cat, so I am fascinated by these sylphs. I also wonder if you could possibly eat nasi kandar on a regular basis and not plump up.

Line clear nasi kandar entrance

A man at the table behind me wanted to chat because he had heard our American accents (I’ve always wondered if in SE Asia, for instance, they can distinguish among different English accents—there are definitely more Australians and Germans speaking English than Americans). He was in Penang taking his mother to a cardiologist even though he lived in Idaho where he runs a Chinese restaurant. I really wanted to ask what kind of food he serves—how could someone who probably enjoys char kway teow serve kung pao to his neighbors? Maybe he could answer this question I stumbled upon today in the Boise Weekly, “Why does most of the Chinese food in Idaho, well, suck?

Line Clear Nasi Kandar * Jalan Penang & Lebuh Chulia, Penang, Malaysia


Is it shameful to eat chain tapas in a city with a grasp on creative Spanish nibbles (unlike other places in the US where eggrolls, sliders and mini-pizzas have been bestowed with the T word)? As someone who has eaten chain tapas on their home turf, Cañas y Tapas in Madrid, I say no.

Lizarran exterior When I heard that, Lizarran, whose parent company also owns Spanish chains like Cantina Mariachi and CH!NA ¡BOOM!, had spread as far as Russia and even had a location in a place called Walmart Commercial Centre in Shouzou, I needed to see their first NYC outpost in person.

Despite being in Soho, the restaurant feels more awkward and earnest than its surroundings. Maybe I’m just responding to the little table with flowers and bottles of sitting outside the front door. Welcome to Spain! handwritten in rainbow chalk above the tableau.

I feared a reliance on greatest hits—brie on the cheese plate didn’t put me at ease—and while a good deal of the printed menu was perfunctory, blackboard specials like carrilladas (pig’s cheeks), morcilla (blood sausage) and callos (tripe) were more adventurous than the tortilla and gambas everyone knows and loves. 

Lizarran interior

On the early side of Friday night, the narrow brick-walled room with a large amount of tables in the back, was far from bustling. I know I can be crowd-phobic but tapas demand an element of conviviality (indoor smoking wouldn’t hurt the mood either). Diners were composed of an after-work group enjoying pitchers of sangria, gallery girls making a dinner of a single vegetarian pintxo, and a young couple lording over an item each like they were entrees. I would never occur to me to stop in a tapas bar to eat a bowl of soup.

Pintxos, things served atop slices of bread and held together with a toothpick, are housed under see-through domes at the counter much like you’d see in Barcelona. Periodically, servers will pass by tables with a sampling, and you can pick and choose, $2.50 a piece. We ate two. The rest of this meal we ordered from the menu.

Lizarran chorizo pintxo

This was a simple chorizo pintxo like you’d get for free with a drink in Madrid.

Lizarran piquillo pintxo

The fried piquillo was a bit more elaborate. Our server had no idea what the pepper was stuffed with so I took a chance assuming it was salt cod. It turned out to be shredded meat, more beefy than porky. No, I couldn’t say for sure and this wasn’t alarming.

Lizarran pulpo a feira

Pulpo a feira wasn’t terribly paprika’d but the octopus was tender.

Lizarran huevos estrellados con chistorra

Huevos estrellados con chistorra sounded similar to the good and greasy huevos rotos we’d encountered in Madrid. The concept was the same. These sliced boiled potatoes were too healthy, though. A crisp-fried base for the eggs and stubby Basque sausages would’ve been perfect.

Lizarran croquetas

The two croquetas I ate from this sampler were made of ham and spinach raisin. I never find fault with croquetas.

I would like to see more emphasis on the pintxos because that’s where Lizarran could differentiate themselves from other tapas bars. The setup was a little confusing; it wasn’t clear if you were supposed to wait for someone to bring them by your table since there isn’t a steady dim sum-style stream (or enough patrons to demand fast turnover) or if you should go up to the un-inviting counter and choose your own.

Lizarran * 45 Mercer St., New York, NY

Artichoking Up

Artichokes I'm still trying to figure out what Bon Appetit is good for, it melds with Food & Wine in my brain and I only willingly subscribed to the latter. So far it has served as memory dredger.

My attitude toward mayonnaise has softened with age. It does have a place in the kitchen and I'm able to eat it as long as I can't see it oozing out from under a slice of bread or a bun like a white lava flow. But I'd completely blocked out the source of my mayonnaise aversion until I saw the photo of an artichoke with bagna cauda in this month's Bon Appetit (written by a Portlander). Steamed artichokes!

There was a spell in the late '70s right after we'd located from the Bay Area to Portland when that my aunt who'd dropped out of high school and was working at Winchell's was staying with us. There couldn't have been too much of a rift in the family because around this same time her parents, my grandparents, lived in our yard in an RV (nomadism is very much in our genes—last year my sister and husband were living in a recreational vehicle in Springfield).

One night, this aunt was babysitting my sister and me and made steamed artichokes with mayonnaise. That seems impossibly sophisticated now (this is the same aunt who was in the ER last week due to an Atkins fudge overdose) which isn't a knock on my family’s taste, but let’s just say that frozen Salisbury steak and canned creamed corn were the types of thing my dad would make for dinner when my mom worked nights (graveyard shift, which sounded ominous). Perhaps artichokes and dip were a mainstream edible of the era that seemed fancier than it was like green goddess dressing.

Even though I couldn't have been more than four years old, I thought this was a delicious snack…until I got the barfs. I couldn't look at mayonnaise the same way again. These things stay with you. Also during preschool years, I refused to eat a bologna sandwich with mayonnaise while sitting with my mom underneath a giant curved half-circle jungle gym. I was convinced the barkdust we were sitting on had gotten into the sandwich.

Now, I'm sounding very neurotic because after throwing up at the Rose Festival Fun Center (believe me, there is nothing less fun) after church with the smell of wet barkdust and corndogs in the air, I've never liked either. In fact, on the way to the gym where I was reading this Bon Appetit, I passed by a few trees surrounded by freshly rained on mulch (they don't call it barkdust in NYC) and had carny flashbacks.

What? No Paneer Poppers?

Potatopaneerburrito Of course I have a bit of a fixation with the worldwide spread of chain restaurants. No one else seems to share my fascination, which is why I'm surprised that the news of India's first Taco Bell has stirred up so much online chatter.

Maybe it's because the offerings sounds kind of good in a hippie junk food way. More spice and a "Mexican paneer" potato burrito (pictured)?

And in case you're not sure what a tortilla is, that's covered in the FAQ:

"It’s a tongue twister, apart from being a product which looks like our ‘chapatti’ and is made with flour. This is filled with unique combinations of Mexican inspired ingredients & then rolled / folded / grilled to make great tasting, craveable products."

McDonald's who may increase spending in Asia as much as 20% this year, is also betting on heat—spicier sauces is one of their strategies.

Even the British with their stereotypically staid food have chosen fajitas as dinner party dish of choice. Tex-Mex? I'm still not sure that I believe that.

Lorong Seratus Tahun

1/2 I try to be open minded about others’ food limitations. Even so, I will admit that while at a sushi lunch with a few workmates the other day, I was stunned to hear that crème brulee was something that one coworker’s new husband reluctantly tried for the first time on their recent Disneyworld honeymoon. “Um, that’s a delicious dessert, not something weird,” added the other luncher. Indeed.

While I don’t go in for the gross for the sake of being shocking antics, if a dish traditionally contains un unusual ingredient I definitely want to eat it the way it was intended, not toned down for delicate sensibilities. If it turns out to be loathsome? Lesson learned.

So, maybe I was being sneaky when I ordered two bowls of curry mee at Lorong Seratus Tahun, nodding yes to all of the mix-ins. I knew full well that James wasn’t going to be as enamored of pig’s blood as I.

“Should I even ask what this is?” he hesitated, poking at the jiggly crimson cubes. “Kidneys? Heart?” I had to break the bloody news, but countered that the texture isn’t much different than tofu. Oh, that’s right, he doesn’t like tofu either. I ended up with a double-dose of pig’s blood cubes.

Lorong seratus tahun curry mee

Anyway, I loved this soup. Even though Penang laksa had undeniable hot-sour charms, I always fall for the spicy-creamy coconut milk-based soups. As you can see from the color of the prawn-enriched broth, they use a light hand with the coconut milk. This isn’t lemak as the curry laksa that’s more common in Singapore.

The fried bean curd puff soak up the flavor, cockles, shrimp and squid (not sure if that’s common or not) add chewiness from the sea and the coagulated pig’s blood? Yes, that is unusual. I suppose Portuguese combine shellfish and pork in delicious ways. Just as I can’t even imagine how it was decided to combine cuttlefish, fruit and prawn paste in rojak, I don’t how the idea of putting pig’s blood into a seafood-based soup came about either. Definitely a Chinese influence, and far from wasteful. Two types of noodles are used, both fat yellow egg noodles and rice vermicelli. You can add as much sambal as you like for extra oily spice; containers are left on the table.

I have been thinking about this bowl of curry mee off and on for the past few weeks, usually at work when I try to calculate if I have enough time to hop up to Chinatown and back during lunch. I’m not even sure where to go downtown. Nonya? New Malaysia? Skyway? Malaysian food in NYC often seems like a facsimile in ways that are harder to pinpoint than with American Thai food. I think it just comes down to ingredients and lack of a strong Malaysian/Singaporean presence in the city to keep flavors on track. I’ve had positive experiences at Taste Good in Elmhurst but that takes more planning.

Lorong seratus tahun

As the check was brought at the close of my sushi lunch, a send-off plate of cantaloupe showed up instead of the usual orange slices. Payback time. After discussion of crème brulee and pig’s blood fears, I was faced with my own irrational won’t-touch-it dislike: melon.

Lorong Seratus Tahun  * 55 Lorong Seratus Tahun, Penang, Malaysia

Air Itam Laksa

“Laksa,” the taxi drivers hovering at the bottom of our hotel’s driveway in Penang started calling out when we’d walk past. “You like laksa! You want more laksa?” Embarrassed and a little proud, we’d have to turn then down, “No, we’re just walking.”

Penang is not a huge place, so after one of the men drove us out to Air Itam for laksa on our first day on the island, we became recognized as the laksa-lovers. I liked that about Penang, that locals were kind of amused but didn’t think it was particularly odd that the Westerners wanted to go on laksa excursions.

For contrast, in Bangkok, we used Saochingcha, the Giant Swing, as a landmark to direct taxis, not because we wanted to see the monument or the wat next to it, but Saochingcha was a word we could pronounce and that would be recognized and happened to be near a good eating neighborhood off the subway system, away from the hotel strips of Sukhumvit and Silom.

But when we asked our doorman at our first hotel to explain our destination to the cab driver (one of the most humbling aspects of traveling in a non-English or Spanish speaking country) he was discouraging and warned, “There’s nothing to do there.” Our “Oh, we’re going to eat” reassurance just baffled him further. Later in the vacation when we told the man directing cabs at MBK that we needed to get to Saochingcha he actually shook his head at another staffer and rolled his eyes.

Air itam laksa stand

Air Itam, a community that’s also home to Penang Hill (sadly, they closed the funicular just a week before we arrived—not that the rickety incline during a rainstorm didn’t jangle my nerves on our last visit) and Kek Lok Si temple, is just under four miles from the Gurney Drive area but feels much more isolated. I actually saw a man using a kandar, a long wooden pole atop his shoulder to carry plastic grocery bags, a modern nod, rather than balancing pots or baskets of yore. The entire area west of Air Itam on Google Maps is blank.

Air Itam is also known for its laksa. I had read that this corner stand is a tour bus stop and feared mobs, but when we arrived in the early afternoon no one else was seated at the few metal tables.

Air itam laksa

The first thing you’ll notice about this soup is that it’s much chunkier than what you typically find at stalls. They use a base that contains a larger proportion of flaked mackerel. Combined with the fat, round rice noodles just below the surface, even a smallish bowl (they have one standard size for RM3.00, which seemed to be the going rate for laksa in Penang, about 90 cents) is hearty. We were asked if we wanted chiles. Yes, and you should too. Malaysian food is spicy but rarely hot. The red chile rings meld with the sludgy topping of mint, onion, cucumber, bunga kantan (torch ginger bud—not that that means much of anything here either) and black prawn paste, and makes the whole hodgepodge taste like…well, laksa.

Easier said than done. I’ve never attempted to cook this asam style at home but my forays into laksa lemak and Sarawakian laksa (using a paste straight from the Malaysian state) fell flat. Something is lacking (don’t say love) and the flavors always end up dulled. Good enough for NYC but not great.

Air Itam Laksa * Jalan Pasar next to the Air Itam Market, Penang, Malaysia

Bueno? Buono? It’s All Good


Nothing will acculturate Latinos faster than converting them to Italian food Olive Garden-style. What could be more American?

In a cross-cultural marketing move, Don Francisco, the host of Sabado Gigante, will be tagging along with Olive Garden's "Cocinando un Sueño" contest winner, Margarita Ibarra, (who has been given a job at a Houston Olive Garden) to the chain’s Culinary Institute in Tuscany for a segment. Watch it tomorrow night.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers needn’t choose between Italian and Latin American food. Matilda in the East Village is Tusc-Mex while Williamsburg’s Miranda is putting chorizo in risotto and sprinkling gnocchi with cotija. 

Photo from Univision

Chain Links: TGI Friday-Free Afghanistan

Pyongyang, a North Korean chain restaurant scattered across Asia, is not only odd, it might be a money laundering scheme.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal is a real killjoy. He has demanded the shuttering of the Subway, Coldstone Creamery, TGI Friday’s, Burger King and other assorted Americana in Kandahar.

608 of Australia’s 808 McDonald’s locations have a coffee shop, making it the largest coffee chain in the country.

Northam Beach Cafe

Northam Beach Café is a newer, more organized, I guess pricier, hawker center than Gurney Drive. I liked having a numbered table because who’s to say you’ll find a seat near where you ordered? The other benefit was a dedicated beer stand where you can get your large sized Tiger beer (we initially grabbed a bottle out of the cooler but the cashier gave us a colder one from behind the counter) and two iced mugs. Two fresh mugs each round. In Thailand they drank ice in their beer, a practice I didn’t encounter in Penang.

Northam beach cafe tables

And while there appeared to be fewer obvious tourists (I couldn’t identify a Singaporean or Kuala  Lumpur resident by sight) the stalls were more international, going well beyond Malaysian classics. What convinced me to try this center in the first place was the supposed presence of a Mexican food stand. That, I needed to see. Unfortunately, it wasn’t there.

Northam beach french stand

Consolation prize went to La France. I do still wonder about the advertised frisee salad with lardons.
Northam beach german stand

German sausages were a close second. 

Northam beach pork bbq & spaghetti

Northam beach filipino stand

My international maneuver was a mistake. I got excited when I saw the words ihawan and Filipino bbq because in the US that means sweet, smokey meat on sticks. I love it way more than satay. But they only had dinner combos and bbq pork ended up being a few fatty slices or meat drenched in a gooey sauce and served with spaghetti. If you’ve ever encountered sugary, wiener-laden Filipino spaghetti, you’ll know it’s an acquired taste. I’ll eat pig’s blood, shrimp paste and the like, but really do think you have to have to have grown up with this spaghetti it to love it.

Northam beach satay

Some of that perfectly pleasant satay. Chicken because they were out of mutton.

Northam beach pasembur

Gurney Drive has pick-a-mix pasembur where you can choose from plates and plates of fried beige things to be tossed with the sweet potato dressing. Here, you get what they give you. I like the idea of crunchy bits, seafood and vegetables tossed together but it’s bland compared to rojak.

Northam beach belacan fried chicken

James will almost always order fried chicken when it’s available and it was plentiful in both Malaysia and Thailand. I told him I saw a stand in the back corner. What I didn’t tell him was that it was belcan fried chicken. He thinks that he hates shrimp paste, though I really think he just hates the smell of the block I keep wrapped up in the crisper drawer of our refrigerator. It really isn’t that strong after it’s been cooked, I swear. The funny thing was that he didn’t notice the shrimp paste until the chicken cooled down to room temperature. The fishiness doesn’t hit you over the head, instead adding rich umami undertones.

Northam beach mua chee stand

Northam beach mua chee

Mua chee, as they call it, is mochi. Here, steamed glutinous rice blobs drizzled with a peanut sauce. Apparently, offering a variety of flavors is unusual. You can mix two and I had pandan and black sesame. The others were sweetcorn, original and green tea.  My only quibble was that the pretty colors don’t show up once peanut-coated and displayed under the night sky.

Northam Beach Café * Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, Penang, Malaysia