475 Jalan Penang (on the corner of Lebuh Keng Kwee) Georgetown
When it comes to food, you don’t really get more quintessentially ‘Georgetown’ than Joo Hooi Cafe on Jalan Penang. Not only does it dish up much loved Penang staples, but its low-brow, no-nonsense atmosphere and throngs of diners jostling for space will plunge you head-first and without reserve into the Georgetown gastronomic experience.
Let’s be clear: this place is not for you if you are looking to linger and have a relaxed chat. It is often hot, crowded and noisy. You sit at plastic tables and chairs, if you’re lucky. If not, you might just have to stand and eat outside and hope a seat becomes available. The fans are not very effective and you will most likely sweat. So what makes it worth visiting?
Well, as with most local cafes in Penang, it’s all about the food, and this place is widely regarded to have the best asam laksa — also known as Penang laksa — in central Georgetown. It must be said, this is no mean feat in a city that lives and breathes food, and its notoriety is such that local tourists from all over Malaysia seem to converge here. Over busy lunchtimes and at weekends, the people on the stall at the back of the cafe work flat out, preparing bowls of steaming, spicy broth and noodles, flavoured with hunks of fish, tamarind, mint, pineapple and chilli. If you’ve not tried asam laksa before, this it is an absolute must (3.50 ringgit for a small bowl, 4 ringgit for a large one).
The cafe also does a good line in char koay teow, Penang’s other staple dish, though again, be prepared to wait if you go there over a busy lunchtime. On our last visit there were more than 30 people in the queue before us, which could be annoying until you realise that this demand is also a measure of quality. The char koay teow here, though slightly light on prawns, is about as tasty as you will find in Georgetown (5 ringgit with egg, 4 ringgit without).
Other Penang favourites include lobak (a deep fried roll of spiced minced pork and vegetables, wrapped in bean curd) and rojak (a mixture of dough fritters, boiled potatoes, boiled eggs, bean sprouts, cucumber, prawn fritters, bean curd and cuttlefish, mixed with a sweet and spicy peanut sauce) from 4 ringgit.
Just outside, in the neighbouring alleyway, you can also find one of Penang’s most popular cendol (chen-dol) stalls, which does a brisk and popular trade in refreshing bowls of shaved ice, heaped with pandan-flavoured jelly noodles, coconut milk, palm sugar and red beans, all for 2 ringgit. Look for the ‘Famous Penang Cendol’ sign.
You can order the dish at the Joo Hooi cafe but they will bring it from the neighbouring rival stall – bizarrely, this is in the same alleyway – so it’s better to go and order yourself and eat it on the street. This is also a good excuse to leave the heat and chaos of the cafe and cool down your tastebuds after a bowl of spicy Penang laksa.
After lunch, Jalan Penang is a good place to start Georgetown’s street art trail, which you can do in reverse from just beyond the junction with Lebuh Muntri. Alternatively, you could head a little further in the same direction and visit the famous Blue Mansion in Lebuh Leith. The walk to both should take five to 10 minutes.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 26th February, 2015.