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Virginia Beach gets first Malaysian restaurant

March 22, 2019

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Malaysia is the stovetop of Asia — a swirl of cultures and foods as rich as almost any in the world — with famous street-food hawker stalls taking influences from China, India, Indonesia or Thailand.

Penang Town, a Malaysian restaurant that opened in January at 649 Newtown Road in Virginia Beach, contains equal multitudes.

The menu includes curried noodles flaming red with heat, delicate peanut-sauced meat skewers, beef rendang cooked down into a paste of spice, or Indian-style flatbreads that have been puffed and crisped until they’re lighter than a baby’s soul.

It is a wealth of flavors that are likely unfamiliar to diners in Virginia Beach. Penang Town, a well-lit spot decorated sparsely with plant fronds and a framed picture of amorous orangutans, is the only traditional Malaysian restaurant for hundreds of miles. It’s also likely the first in Hampton Roads.

Owner Evelyn Loh, a native of the northern Malaysian city of Perak, says diner after diner has thanked her for opening the restaurant. Before that, she says, they had to drive to Washington, D.C., to taste Malaysia’s national dish of Nasi Lemak coconut rice, or stir-fried Char Kuay Teow noodles mixed with shrimp and breathing with the smoky character of the wok.

To make the latter dish, Loh must bring in the broad, flat noodles fresh from New York each week.

And even if you’ve never had it, char kuay teow is an immediate comfort, its flavor made deep by the Malaysian practice of bringing sauces to nuclear heat to bring out the aromatics. This requires quite a bit of skill, leaving Penang Town chef Andrew Goh a window of mere seconds between underdone and over-fried.

The result on the char kuay teow is smoky and pan-seared depth, amid the light crunch of bean sprouts, the herbal grassiness of chive and the fishy umami of shrimp paste. When he ate this dish in Malaysia on his show “Parts Unknown,” the late Anthony Bourdain stopped eating to express his affection to the dish privately: “I love you, noodles!”

You likely will, too. But whatever you do, each meal at Penang Town should start with two things — satay skewers and roti bread.

Satay skewers ($7.95 for five) are perhaps the most famous and accessible dish in Malaysia, meat skewers of chicken thigh or beef flank grilled and marinated in lemongrass and spice.

And at Penang Town they are near-perfect. The chicken skewers are crisped lightly on the outside and tender within, bursting with both juice and flavor. The lovely peanut sauce — blending shrimp paste, curry and chili — is more decadent luxury than necessity.

Meanwhile the roti flatbread ($4.95) is an air-puffed take on the old-school Indian flatbread, arriving as pillows of bread layered like fried pastry — as if air itself had been fried into ecstasy. The roti, too, comes with a dipping sauce, low and pungent with earthy curry notes. When you finish, it will be difficult not to order a second round.

After that, you can pretty much choose your adventure — but you won’t go wrong with fried rice dishes, or curried noodle bowls like a pungent, red sauced Curry Mee made with fresh egg noodles and topped with chicken and airy puffed tofu that soaks up flavors.

But in particular, the pineapple rice ($12.45) is bizarrely difficult to stop eating once you begin. It’s a bit like a fried Asian take on risotto, cooked in chicken broth and mixed with shrimp paste for beautiful richness before being fried to light crispness. The rice is mixed with an unlikely cast of textures and flavors: pineapple, raisin, carrots, peas, cashews and shrimp. Somehow, it’s unendingly good — a family-reunion salad from an obscure aunt.

Another hallmark is the rendang — a dry, curried meat cooked down until the spices hang glistening on and in the meat. For those who’ve tried the Indonesian version, the Malaysian take at Penang Town is slightly wetter and a little less intense. The cubes of beef flank arrived coated in curried sauce as thick as you’d expect in St. Louis barbecue, less fiery than earthy in its spice.

Loh says she tends to steer first time visitors away from the aggressive flavors in the Bak Kut Teh Chinese herbal soup. But for the adventurous, it’s worth a try: a roiling ferment of soy, savory mushroom, sweetly aromatic goji berry and unplaceable roots and herbs.

The belachan (shrimp paste) vegetable dishes, meanwhile, are a point of pride in Malaysia, but on our visit the high-temp cooking got the better of the restaurant: on a mixed-veggie dish, our eggplant and okra had been less well-cooked than obliterated, dissolving into mush.

Meanwhile. the mango shrimp is beautiful — arriving in halved and cored mango skins — but Loh admits it’s a bit of a sop to American palates, coming on like the solid-food equivalent of sweet and sour sauce. But to a sweet palate it’s also delicious, mixing tart, lightly underripe mango with a generous profusion of shrimp.

The beverage menu is either expansive or spartan, depending on your tastes. The beer list consists only of a display bottle apiece of Miller Lite and Sapporo at the door to the kitchen, while fruit-infused waters span exotic longan and lychee and rambutan, each singular and delicately sweet. Malaysian coffee and tea, meanwhile, are cousins of earthy, milky Indian chai.

Truly sounding the broad menu at Penang Town will still require many more visits — whether to try Singapore fried rice noodles that have become a dim-sum staple, Indian chili-sauced beef, or a salted egg yolk fried chicken that has become a food trend across Southeast Asia. Chances are, the effort will be rewarded.

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com