There’s an unspoken rule, sort of, when it comes to hunting down the best street food joints in the region. First up, there should be a long queue snaking around the coffee shop or pushcart to determine the venue’s desirability in the eyes of hawker food purists and enthusiasts. Second, the ambience should be, for want of a better description, authentic — that is, nothing too shiny or glamorous, ideally without air conditioning and set amid hustle, buzz and bustle, for that’s how things have always been when it comes to the best hawkers and their stalls or affiliated coffee shops. Thirdly, nothing less than brusque but efficient service should be expected for time is money and top hawkers know better than to waste it on niceties. In Malaysia’s undisputed street food capital of Penang, a relative newcomer has just come and blown away all these preconceptions.
Established by Christine Ooi, Laksalicious occupies a shoplot in Hutton Lane, named after one of the earliest doctors to serve in Penang, in the heart of historical George Town. The gorgeous Jawi Peranakan Mansion — owned and operated by acclaimed hotelier Christopher Ong — is but a few doors away, as is the historical Masjid Jamek Jalan Hatin, the spiritual base for the area’s once-substantial Malay community.
The interior of Laksalicious exudes a bright, welcoming feel. The setting is modern and, to be more than honest, would not catch the attention of a hawker food hound. But, as the saying goes, fortune favours the brave.
Those unaccustomed to Penang’s heat and humidity might, in fact, weep with relief upon entering the café’s cool, calm interior but tears are not required to enjoy the combined pleasure and delight of being able to tuck into delicious Penang dishes in comfort. Service is languid but pleasant, and once tall, cool glasses of cincau (grass jelly) drinks or lohunko (wintermelon brewed with dried longan) are placed before you, you will find yourself slipping easily into island pace where the hardest decision next would be whether you like your laksa spicy and tangy (assam) or rich and creamy (Nyonya).
The former is quintessentially Penang — both in essence and character. It is rich with fish and made fragrant with wonderful Asian leaves and herbs such as mint, lettuce and bunga kantan (torch ginger flower) and, of course, hae ko (prawn paste) — the black gold and backbone of the island’s inimitable Straits Chinese cuisine. A crispy prawn cracker accompanies each bowl of laksa and dipping the crunchy treat into the soup, in between slurps of noodle, adds another dimension of flavour and texture to the laksa experience. An even better idea, however, would be to order a side portion of hot fried spring rolls. All the better to dunk into the soup, my dear.
The visually arrresting sago with gula Melaka, as well as traditional Teochew and Hakka snack of chai kueh or steamed vegetable dumplings are also on the menu. The kueh are a delight to bite into, with chewy, crystal-like skin and jicama or kuchai leaf filling within.
Depending on the season, there are also cempedak and durian spring rolls. And although we have only ever been able to taste the former, it was good enough to have us plotting a return trip to Penang. Those with a durian fetish would do well to call ahead to ensure ample supply of the latter. The only caveat is not to dip either of the fruit spring rolls into the laksa broth. The end result is not pleasant. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Laksalicious, 123 Hutton Lane, George Town, Penang. 04 2299 178. Thu-Tue, 11.30am-7.30pm.