Penang Garden Feels the Weight of Being Chinatown’s Token Malaysian Restaurant

Nasi lemak from Penang Garden.

Chinatown Diaries chronicles one man’s effort to eat at every restaurant and food shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, surveying the neighborhood block by block, rice plate by rice plate. Maximum entree price permitted: $10. Search the interactive map here.

“Featured on the Food Network!” reads the banner drooping down Penang Garden’s wall. “I saw this on the Food Network!” proclaim approximately 37.2 percent of all Yelp reviewers. The consensus between Tyler Florence and Alice L.: The chili crab is Penang Garden’s signature dish. Not a John Hancock kind of signature dish, other Yelpers amend. More along the lines of that wavy line on the back of a Yo La Tengo ticket that Ira Kaplan scrawled when you ran into him after the concert.

Chinatown’s lone Malaysian-Singaporean-Thai-OK-and-some-Chinese-while-we’re-at-it restaurant, Penang Garden must deal with that horrifying, all-too-common prospect that all token minorities face: Representing the whole of a cuisine to a bunch of tentative but curious outsiders — oh, and all the insiders who are so relieved to find a Malaysian-Singaporean restaurant and then so resentful that it isn’t just like Grandma’s cooking. So to hedge their bets they’ve added to the menu fried rice served in a pineapple, a few Thai dishes, and a few other things the owners think their customers might like.

The dim, bamboo-accented decor would not have looked out of place in a 1950s Hollywood movie, and the servers wear shirts that might have been nicked from George Clooney’s wardrobe on the set of the Descendants. Bustling, honking Chinatown can’t penetrate into the dining room; nor can sunlight. It is the perfect place for a business lunch with someone whose words you need to lean in to hear.

As befits a restaurant featured on the Food Network, the menu is largely out of the scope of Chinatown Diaries’ budget. The crab: $35. (So famous!) More sadly, the kangkong belacan, one of the world’s great vegetable dishes, is also above my price limit. As compensation, Penang Garden offers a page of $8 lunch specials, as well as a roti canai, an oiled flatbread constructed of see-through layers, sometimes presented with folds jutting out here and there, as if the cook was modeling it after a Frank Gehry museum.

After two visits, it wasn’t clear, though, whether Penang Garden’s kitchen treats lunch with the respect due a clearance-sale find or whether the cooks, weary of appeasing so many, have just followed in the grand tradition of token restaurants everywhere and dumped a few extra spoonfuls of sugar into the pot to sweeten up the guests. The roti canai was stiff and dried, as was the nasi goreng, or spiced fried rice. Curry laksa, noodles in a soupy coconut-milk curry, had an effusive, welcoming aroma that resembled a vanilla candle: Lovely on first whiff, admittedly rich on the second, and after a few minutes of being in the same room together, perhaps a bit too sweet to keep around.

The variety of flavors in the nasi lemak, though, made it the most interesting dish I tried. Sometimes served for breakfast, sometimes served bundled up in banana leaf packet, nasi lemak (coconut rice with accompaniments) is designed around the assumption that you’re not going to order six dishes so the cooks will generously squeeze them all into one. Rice, softly scented with coconut milk, was the ballast anchoring the robust sweetness of vegetables dressed in peanut sauce; a few spoonfuls of chicken-coconut curry; the sweet-tart bite of a fresh onion sambal topped with minuscule, crisp anchovies; the cool crunch of cucumber; the banal comfort of a fried egg.

The nasi lemak may not have been worth a Food Network shout-out, but it was worth the price of lunch.

Penang Garden: 728 Washington (at Kearny), (415) 296-7878.