By Greg Rodgers
Famous around Asia and the world for a fusion of unique foods, Penang, Malaysia, is the place to forget healthy resolutions and splurge on gluttony. With so many choices, knowing where to eat in Penang can be a challenge for the uninitiated.
Your best bet for a good night of sampling local cuisine -- particularly in a group -- is to head to the hawker food centers and food courts so that everyone can nibble to their own preferences.
Although the food scene at Gurney Drive in Georgetown is world famous and has been covered by food magazines and TV networks, you'll still encounter far more locals than tourists in this foodie epicenter. The seaside strip and pleasant esplanade serve as a social hotspot on weekends for young couples and families.
Every tasty local dish imaginable is available from the large cluster of open-air hawker carts; the smells are tantalizing and prices remain reasonably cheap despite the fame. If the carts aren't your thing, you'll also find a smattering of mid-range and even upscale restaurants including all-you-can-eat steamboat places where you cook seafood at your own table.
Although the restaurants in the upscale Gurney Plaza mall are open by day, Gurney Drive and the hawker carts don't come alive until late evening. If you only visit one hawker food center in Penang to sample local specialties, make it Gurney Drive!
Far tackier and more tourist oriented than Gurney Drive, the Red Garden food court located in Chinatown has one big advantage over other food courts: location. With many of the other hawker centers just outside of walking distance, the Red Garden stays perpetually busy with both Western and Chinese tourists visiting Georgetown.
Even still, the Red Garden has a certain kitsch charm. Expect disco lighting, wailing karaoke, and live entertainment as you choose from a variety of carts in the enclosed food court. You'll find lackluster attempts at food ranging from sushi and dim sum to noodles and skewers; prices are slightly inflated compared to the size of the portion.
Find the Red Garden on Jalan Penang just around the corner from Jalan Chulia -- the main tourist strip in Chinatown.
The New World Park is a failed amusement park from the 1930s converted into food center. Despite the large, airy structure and nice touches, the actual eating area is quite sterile with metal tables and stools. You can choose from around 28 hawker windows serving all the popular favorites; food is easy to locate with the standardized signs above each window. Pricier restaurants and boutiques line the entrance of the New World Park.
If your timing is right, live music, chess competitions, and small festivals held inside the New World Park can still provide a local cultural experience despite a Starbucks prominently located in the front. Arrive early -- the hawker windows often close earlier than expected.
Find the New World Park Penang located on Jalan Burma just past the Tune Hotel.
Strictly a daytime spot, you may be the only tourist among locals grabbing lunch at the Sri Weld Food Court. The handful of mostly noodle carts in the enclosed food court serve delicious local favorites for the lowest prices you'll find in Penang.
Find the Sri Weld Food Court on Lebuh Pantai in the northeast corner of Georgetown.
A little like the Red Garden without the tacky ambiance, the Cecil Market Food Court is a mostly local affair with both excellent food and prices. Expect dirty concrete floors and simple seating while you enjoy a wide range of delicious food cooked at the carts in front of you.
Find the Cecil Market Food Court in the Southeast of Georgetown at the intersection of Jalan C. Y. Choy (the continuation of Lebuh Pantai) and Lebuh Cecil.
Not nearly as famous as Gurney Drive, Jalan Macalister is just one of those food streets that insiders know about. Macalister is simply a street lined with restaurants ranging in price, small cafes, and littered with food carts.
Jalan Macalister operates in two phases; some eateries are only open during the day, then more carts take over at night. Expect bottom prices for specialties such as Char Kway Teow with only simple plastic chairs or seating provided by the dirty curb.
Find Jalan Macalister on the west side of Georgetown as a continuation of Jalan Magazine off of Jalan Penang.