When I first started reading user reviews of Penang's G Hotel, which is shoulder to shoulder (but not adjoining—that air conditioned, never-exposed-to-the-elements luxury is more Singaporean) with Gurney Plaza, they were almost evenly split East-West. I'm generalizing of course, but a typical Asian reviewer might say, "It's next to a mall—great location" while the Europeans (Americans barely make a dent) would be more, "It's next to a mall—ick."
Not ick because the hotel, which didn’t even exist on my last visit in 2005, is not just next to a mall, it's also across from the Gurney Drive hawkers, the best-known outdoor food court in the city. If you're a novelty-seeker like me, it doesn’t get much better than walking out of your room to beef ribs at the ground floor Chili's and rojak down the street.
Here would be said crazy salad of jicama, cucumber, pineapple, water apple (the fruit a cashew is harvested from. I know! Nuts from fruit?), cuttlefish, bean curd and Chinese crullers tossed in a thick, spicy prawn paste and topped with crushed peanuts. I am a fiend for the hot, fishy sweet. Shrimpy and fruity is likely to either disgust or charm you, no in-between.
You can buy the dressing at the stands here and probably elsewhere, too. I'm not sure what the difference is between the white-topped and red-topped jars. Perhaps one is pure prawn paste and the other has sugar and chiles added for a ready-to-use dressing.
Penang laksa is a totally different beast than most Malaysian laksas. Coconut milk-free and lemongrassy, the asam style is soured with tamarind and enriched with flaked mackerel. Once again, the sweet and fishy combo. Toppings usually include cucumber, pineapple, mint and torch ginger bud. The dark condiment on the spoon is black prawn paste, same as in the rojak. I don't order this in NYC because my experiences have been more bad funky (at Singapore Café there were twigs floating around in the broth) than appetizing funky.
James picked up some chicken and a few other unidentified fried tidbits served with sticks at a stall wonderfully named McTucky Fried Chicken.
We only made one attempt to seek out exemplary char kway teow on this visit. Loh Eng Hoo Coffee Shop, my first choice, was closed. Honestly, I'm not enough of a connoisseur to find fault with this version.
Sarsi is a sarsaparilla soda. I thought it tasted a little like Dr. Pepper. I was told to order a sugar cane juice with lime so I did. Some proprietors can be pushy, not rude more this is our specialty. If I'm correct the beverage-sellers have territories, so if you sit in their section you have to order from them. I'll say yes to practically anything because the food is cheap even when tourist-priced. For reference, the laska above was RM3.00 (approximately 90 cents).
Gurney Drive Hawkers * North end of Gurney Dr., Penang, Malaysia