Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Tek Sen Restaurant: Great Chinese in Penang

George Town is about eating, so if you happen to wander past Tek Sen and see that they have an empty table, don't even consider whether you're hungry or not. Just sit down. It's for the best. We did so during lunch time when we were in Malaysia last month and although other customers protested that we didn't have a reservation, we were whisked to a metal table in the back of the restaurant and given menus. If Tek Sen is open, it's busy.

The restaurant is disguised as one of George Town's typical coffeeshops, but really there's something more upmarket and organized about Tek Sen. They were once little more than a tiny rice stall, but since have expanded, moved and embraced very deliberate branding. What they're doing is working – the place is always packed with extended families sharing huge platters of multi-regional Chinese cuisine. We ordered a couple of Tek Sen's signature dishes to share and got to it.
Charlie ordered this barley lime drink, typically served in Chinese restaurants and hawker centers throughout Malaysia and Singapore. It's sweet (duh, this is Malaysia), tangy and a little bit milky. Starchy maybe. And it has plump little barley at the bottom, that Charlie likened to tapioca pearl in terms of experience. 
We heard that you can't skip the double roasted pork with chili padi, and even though I'll soon tell you about a place around the corner from Tek Sen with better char siu, you still shouldn't skip it at Tek Sen. The pork is tender and sweet, caramelized even, with an occasional crunch. You can liken this to the boneless spareribs off an American Chinese food menu, but then imagine meat that's not dripping with fat and food coloring. We were hooked, there wasn't enough.
For some greenery we got the kangkong sambal with prawn. It was our first time with this dish but its one that's served all over Malaysia and would become one of my favorites. Chinese water spinach is gently wok-fried and then tossed with a spicy chili sauce, pungent from shrimp paste. This is called belacan in other places. Compared to others we had in the country I'd say this one stands up well but is not the favorite. It wins with the addition of shrimp, though, because normally you just get veg. 
We went with a recommended chicken dish, this one fried and doused in a sweet and light plum sauce. We were really impressed by how impossibly crisp the chicken stayed underneath the tangy sauce. The chicken itself was a thin cutlet so you didn't encounter big chunks with dried out centers. Just the perfect ratio of meat to crunch on each strip. Obsessed.
And we got fried rice with "various cutlets", which we certainly didn't need but ate anyway (a theme). A very delicate version, this rice had a subtle flavor and managed to feel no more fatty than white rice. It's peppered with little morsels of shrimp, squid and slices of what may have been fish or scallop cake, egg and scallion, and delicious when dredged through the leftover plum sauce from the chicken.

We were pretty impressed during and after our meal at Tek Sen. Each dish we got was just consistently really tasty – faultless, almost. It wasn't until our time in Malaysia wore on and we had similar dishes other places that we were like, "ah, Tek Sen could have done this just a little better on that dish". If you're in George Town, Tek Sen is a great choice for a sit-down Chinese meal, especially if you're tired of fighting for a table at a street cart. It was one of our best meals in Malaysia.

Tek Sen Restaurant: 18 Lebuh Carnarvon, George Town, Malaysia. +60 12-981 5117

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