Friday, January 10, 2014

The Ultimate List of Penang Cafes (Updated)

This post is an update of the popular Ultimate List of Cafes in Penang. Almost a year ago, the lions had two local Penangites - Miss Honey Wine and Miss Mantis Prawn show them around the island. This time, the lions and their regular makan kakis, including Mr Business Times' notoriously fussy palate and Mr Husky's bottomless stomach pit, headed down to the ultimate street food paradise at the end of 2013 to compare notes and to indulge in an eat-till-you-buay-tahan feast, squeezing in some time, of course, for a little cafe-hopping. What a way to end the eventful year with a fantastic bunch of foodies!

Here are highlights of some of the must-visit cafes in town:

1) Humble Street-Side Hole-in-the-Wall Joints

- Toh Soon Cafe (the non-commercialised Ya Kun of Penang) - they seem to be a victim of their own success this time round, buckling under the pressure of crowds. Standard of toast and coffee is a little inconsistent. Still a nostalgic place to visit.

Coffee and toast made the traditional way over an open charcoal fire.
Look out for their retro-cool aluminium tables and stools. The lions
missed out on their keke mian bao (cocoa toast).
- The lip-smacking Indian counterpart along Jalan Hutton that is so unassuming, it does not have a known name. Look out for the Nasi Dalca sign. Go for the soft-boiled eggs on toast browned over a traditional charcoal fire here. Must-try: the Nasi Dalca - lentil rice.

Look out for the Nasi Dalca sign to find this obscure joint located just down the
road from Toh Soon.  Have your toast with piquant fish curry and ask for their
signature buttered toast topped with soft boiled eggs.
- If you, like many frustrated patrons, are unable to nab that elusive seat at Toh Soon, do not despair. Head instead for a more comfortable setting in an old school coffeeshop nonetheless. Home-grown business luminaries like the inimitable Sugar King Robert Kuok and the late Mr Honda Loh Boon Siew have been known to warm the seats at Kong Thai Lai. Mr Business Times was gladly amused by the fact that he, out of the entire group of eight, had inadvertently chose the late Penangite tycoon's favourite seat there.

The toast here is evenly and nicely browned but not over traditional
charcoal fire though. Nonetheless, the ubiquitous breakfast staple
of toast, eggs and coffee here is more meticulously prepared as compared
to the frazzled Toh Soon now.
2) Cafes serious about their cup of java: The Alley, Moustache Houze, Mugshot Cafe, Playground, Ete Cafe, Coffee Lane, siTigun Coffee, 55 Cafe & Restaurant, and Lighthouse. The lions unanimously declared Coffee Lane as their choice destination for that perfect cuppa previously. Now their favourite joint is the newly minted The Alley mended by an extremely friendly bunch of young coffee connoisseurs who also charmingly churn out the island's first cronuts and Spanish churros ('very authentic' they proudly quipped).  On top of this, the lions' eager eyes were all on Cafe 55's much-hyped 3D Latte Art.

3D Latte Art at 55 Cafe & Restaurant. No more vicariously admiring
foam creatures popping up on coffee cups on the internet. This one's for real. 
The downside: Cafe 55 is easily one of the costliest coffee joints
in Penang.
Playground is surely a grown kid's delight with an inventory of toys from
the 70s and 80s. They will serve you their signature 'mystery' soup of the day
and an accompanying drink on the house. Have a good laugh once you realise
what that is. On another note, be sure to head for the loo and after that ahem...
be sure to turn on the correct functioning tap. No prizes for guessing!
What a cheeky joint! Have fun in here, serious coffee snobs are banned.
Moustache Houze attracts a young clientele that is hell-bent on cam-whoring.
Why? Oh, just google and scary images of pimpled and mustachioed
teenagers posing seductively with friends will haunt your dreams.
Let these young folks indulge in the joint's signature flavoured ice cube
drinks. Don't waste your time with those. Dive straight into the single origin
Start your day by having a languid breakfast at Mugshot Cafe.
The main attraction's their wood-fired bagels. Coffee's beyond decent here
The Alley opened its doors just last November. Service here plain rocks.
Grab a cronut and the churros here with a latte served in those traditional
kopitiam cups. Instead of an accompanying Italian biscotti, the little treat
comes in the form of a local flaky peanut snack (can't, for the love of coffee
recall what the peanut snack is called in Singapore).
The Lions' past favourite: Coffee Lane Cafe. Check out the too-cute-for-words
Spanish Ascaso espresso machines. It comes in bright yellow, orange and baby
blue colours. Coffee Lane also does a mean pork cutlet, much like those you get
in your school canteen in the 80s. Of course, do not miss their saliva-inducing
chempedak cake.  Love the retro vibe in an old-school shophouse. And oh,
they roast their beans in-house as well.
Ete Cafe is runned by a lovely Taiwanese couple who escaped to the laidback
island after deeming the pace of life too harried and competitive back home.
Both of them trained at the prestigous Le Cordon Bleu and churn out an
excellent variety of French-inspired cakes and pastries. The variety of single
origin beans carried by this elusive little cafe is also worth a mention. They did
say that they might be moving from their present location to a bigger premise
in the near future. Some visitors have complained about their
blink-and-you-might-miss-it location, which adds to the charm, really.
The lions had high hopes for Lighthouse located in a pristinely restored colonial
building. This high profile cafe boasts a coffee academy under her wing that
conducts barista training and coffee appreciation sessions. But oh boy, they
were a little disappointed. The coffee served up that day was mediocre, too milky
and even the Long Black was a watered down affair. Barista problems, perhaps? 
The vibe was akin to an impersonal Starbucks joint.
After reading about siTigun Coffee's much talked about "Crash Coffee", it was
on the Lions' agenda to give the strong cuppa a try. Not for the faint-hearted,
siTigun's crash coffee made from blended Arabica beans was very much like a
Turkish coffee with left-over dregs. Not a complex cup but gives you a straight
punch in the face. The cafe is opened by an Indonesian couple, wow, the number
of expatriates opening cafes here is growing.

Others: Full of Beans, Harvest Times Cafe, Coob Coffee Club, Twelve Cups

3) Atmospheric Cafes: Chai Diam Ma, China House & Kwong Sang House. Huge on ambience and character, not so much for coffee.

Located in what was formerly a tailor's shop, the cafe is bedecked with tools of the
trade. Think spools of colourful cloths and threads, measuring rulers and vintage
sewing machines. Head up to the 2nd floor for more surprises.
The lion's must-go cafe because, oh what else, the boss's a pretty feline
named Xiao Hua! A sign reminds visitors not to step on the boss (lol!) upon
entering the quirky joint that carries an eclectic range of handmade souvenirs and
knick knacks. A little piece of drama soon ensued when the lions were there the year
before. After they had fun playing with Xiao Hua in her cardboard box, she crept to
the windsill, sat innocently for a few minutes there and then made a mad dash for
the road outside! She had proudly caught a poor little sparrow in her mouth!
Singapore's very own home-grown coffee roaster, Nylon Coffee, has snagged a
China House gig. Their beans were the guest blend when the lions were there.
China House is the ultimate destination dining venue in town.
The gargantuan compound is made up of three traditional shophouses
linked by an open air courtyard and converted into 14 spaces comprising shops,
cafes, bars, restaurants, art galleries and multipurpose performance space.
Check out Kopi C for their brunch menu, Beach St. Bakery for cakes, Courtyard
for burgers and the Canteen & Bar for their delish Mexican food. It can be a
confusing affair to first-time visitors as each space melds so seamlessly into the
other that you might be forgiven for sitting in one space while thinking of erroneously
ordering food from another menu. Blah! The vibe is rather much like P.S Cafe back home.

Others: Moontree 47, Behind 50, Nostalgie Cafe, Irrawaddy Fine Food, Cozy in the Rocket, La Vanille, Penang Art Cafe
Tip: Swing by the romantic Irrawaddy Road by night. Very Greenwood Avenue vibe there with restaurants and cafes sitting amidst a serene bungalow-ed district. The too-sweet-for-words, Victorian-themed English Tea Room, Victoria Rossa, calls this place home as well.

4) Unique Coffee: Ok, we could have classified Cafe 55's 3D Latte Art here as well but wetinks Huey & Wah deserves a special mention on their own. This is the only place where you can dunk Guinness Stout infused marshmallows into your coffee and watch gleefully as the pillowy mess dissipate, changing the taste profile of your cuppa. Choose from a range of home-made marshmallow flavours as well. But stout still works best with coffee.   

Artisan marshmallow joint at Straits Quay: Huey & Wah.
Gourmet pillows of happiness made from scratch using the finest ingredients.
No artificial colours, flavours and preservatives. Wedding favours like the
chocolate covered marshmallow pops are available on top of bakes like
the yellow submarine - a lemon-passionfruit marshmallow cake.

5) Coffee in a Hotel: A little bird told the lions to check out the incredible coffee at the Living Room housed in the Macalister Mansion.

Don't know about the pole-dancing bear but this 100-year-old grand dame
given a thorough sprucing up by a Singapore design firm is certainly
deserving of her list of awards. A notable mention is the Afternoon Tea
for 2 (RM69+) at The Living Room that comes with two premium pots
of TWG tea and a tray of sweets and savouries. The coffee is also pretty
good for a hotel (if you know what i mean). The highlight here is the rich,
creamy mocha using good quality dark chocolate.

Of course, this is not meant to be an inexhaustible list of all the cafes in Penang but a highlight of the ones worth a visit. Do drop us a note on new joints and if certain details have been outdated. Peace!


  1. the peanut snack you are referring to is gong tng?

    1. Hi, does gong tng refer to the hard candy with visible nuts in it? It's the flaky one in tracing paper-like wrapper that we are referring to.

  2. yes that's the one! the flaky peanut snack in the wrapper!

  3. Hi,
    I've been to most of the atmospheric and themed cafe and restaurant in Penang but didnt know there's still cafe that serves charcoal toast. Will pay a visit there. Thanks for the intro =)