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The Roti Less Traveled 

Wednesday, May 3 2006
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New Yorkers longing for Malaysian cooking have always tended to head to one of the Penang restaurants out in Flushing or in Manhattan’s Chinatown, folksy Malaysian-Chinese diners where the flavors are perhaps scrubbed down more assiduously than they are at the funkier Malaysian dives, but where you can always count on certain highlights of the cuisine to be reliably presented. I’m thinking specifically about the rojak salads, the curried fish heads and the ultracaloric fried noodles called char kway teow. When I lived in New York, the various Penangs never seemed quite up to the level of my favorite Los Angeles Malaysian restaurants, but the spicy beef rendang and the crisp curry puffs were usually good enough to tide over a craving for a week or two.

Still, Penang always had great roti canai: delicately crisp flour pancakes as large as crumpled handkerchiefs, almost thin enough to read through and practically sizzling with butter, served with a small bowl of coconut-scented chicken curry tinted a deep rust color with chile oil. And the roti canai at the first West Coast location of Penang, located in the West Covina shopping center that is also home to Krua Thai and a tiny but excellent Indonesian food court, are really very good. It is hard to restrain yourself from gobbling up the pancakes the second they come to the table. Which is good, because the roti become as hard and unappealing as fried phonograph records when you let them sit for more than a minute or two. After you finish the roti, a bowl of the herbal pork-rib soup called bah kut teh, and maybe a plate of crunchy fried purple eggplant or a dish of the Chinese water spinach kangkong fried with a fistful of the smelly, fermented shrimp paste belacan, you can have another order of pancakes, this time stuffed with ground peanuts and hot syrup for dessert. At the local Penang, whose food tends to be much better than that of the East Coast branches of the restaurant, you will never go wrong with roti.

The West Covina Penang, which lies only a few minutes past San Gabriel off the 10, is surprisingly vast for a strip-mall restaurant, with high ceilings, vaguely tropical detailing and a din at peak hours that might remind you of a thatched beer hall, except that Penang doesn’t bother to serve beer.

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Malaysia is at a crossroads of culture in Southeast Asia, and its cooking, as well as its history, is touched by Indonesian, Chinese and Indian-Muslim influences. Penang is a Malaysian-Chinese restaurant, which means that you will find a few pork dishes on the menu — sticky “volcano” spareribs, deep-fried chitterlings with pineapple, the sparerib bah kut teh — as well as a full complement of noodle dishes and a rather high level of overall sweetness, plus the occasional lashing of sour tamarind characteristic of the restaurant’s namesake city on Malaysia’s west coast.

Penang-style rojak is a wholly delicious dish, slivers of fresh cucumber, pineapple, mango, jicama and fried bean curd served with a dangerously fragrant dressing of dark soy and belacan, a salad you can smell from across the room. The char kway teow, flat, slippery rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp and bean sprouts, is marked with crusty spots, smoky from the heat of the wok. The crisp oyster omelets, indistinguishable from what you’d find at a good Thai-Chinese restaurant like Hollywood’s Ruen Pair, are first-rate. There is a better-than-passable version of Hainan chicken rice — the broth-cooked rice almost sings with ginger and garlic. The deep-fried chicken wings belted with pandan leaves crunch down with the best of Buffalo.

Are there mediocre dishes at Penang? A few of them: sliced chicken sautéed with mangoes and a violent-red sweet-and-sour sauce, like a Cantonese-restaurant nightmare; soggy, egg-filled roti telur that doesn’t bear quite enough resemblance to an Indonesian murtabak; a flat basil chicken. (Anything that sounds too close to a Thai or mainstream Chinese dish probably is.)

But anything on the menu marked by the word sambal, referring to a highly spiced chile paste, is bound to be pretty good: sambal ikan bilis, a saucy dish of tiny anchovies cooked down into a sort of marmalade with onions and tamarind; giant prawns crusted with a sweet sambal; whole butterfish smeared with sambal; sambal petai, made with Malaysia’s famous stinky bean.

The service is authentically Malaysian, which is to say that the waiters, clad in sarongs and tight black shirts, appear at the table at erratic intervals when they bother to show up at all, and will let you order four versions of the same dish without comment, but will still make you love them by the end of the meal. Along with their neighbors in Thailand, Malaysians have 37 ways of nodding, 36 of which probably mean “fuck you,” but if you are as unaware of the nuances as I am, and you almost certainly are, there are nothing but smiles all around.?

Penang, 971 S. Glendora Ave., West Covina, (626) 338-6138. Open Sun.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $15–$35. Recommended dishes: roti canai; beef rendang; kangkong belacan; sambal ikan bilis.

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