Nirvana Cafe, located under a large rain tree (Samanea saman) on Anson Road, near the junction with Johore Road, started back in 1975 as a small Indian coffee stall. It was strategically located next door to the popular Penang Buddhist Association.
Nirvana Cafe today is still a humble, ramshackle tin-roofed structure, right next door to the impressive Penang Buddhist Association building:
Today, Nirvana Cafe is owned by 58-year-old Madam Prabavathy, who manages the beverage section of the coffeeshop, whilst she has good stallholders providing popular Penang street food fare like Hokkien mee, wantan mee, chee cheong fun and roti canai. There is also an asam laksa and popiah stall there, which wasn’t opened last Sunday when we breakfasted there.
Hokkien mee - the ‘make-or-break’ broth here was pitch-perfect: deep pork-shrimp flavours, spiked with red chili paste, the way local Penangites love their Hokkien noodle dish. The dish was assembled clumsily: chopped up boiled egg, some slivers of boiled shrimp, pork-ribs, with yellow wheat noodles, thin rice noodles and beansprouts, topped with crisp, golden-fried shallots and a splash of extra chili paste for added zing. Everything came together amazingly well, so whilst the bowl of noodles did not look particularly attractive, it simply exploded with strong flavours.
Wantan mee - confession I never liked Penang-style wantan noodles: I found the noodles here to be too chewy (it’s a Penang thang) whilst the signature dark soysauce-tinged Malaysian-style wantan dressing is usually pretty tasteless compared to Kuala Lumpur’s concoctions. But I liked the one here - it was more ‘KL’ than ‘Penang’, ditto its no-nonsense, well-charred, caramelised “char siew” (Cantonese BBQ pork). The wantan dumplings were nothing to write home about, nor its too-salty accompanying soup. But the noodles was perfect.
Chee cheong fun - the thick, fat rolls of rice noodles had a very nice texture which I loved. The dressing - hoi sin, fermented shrimp paste and chili paste - left quite a bit to be desired, but the overall dish was above average because of the excellent noodles.
Roti canai - ironically, for a Tamil-Indian-owned coffeeshop (although all the other stallowners are Chinese), the only Indian-owned stall - the one offering roti canai, the Malaysian take on Indian paratha flatbread - turned out to be the weakest link. Its roti canai were chewy and stretchy, and the accompanying dhal curry was too spicy for me. A let-down.
Roti tisu - a crisp flatbread, folded into a conical form, then drizzled with sweetened, condensed milk.
I’ll be back for more of the wantan noodles, especially the option with curried chicken and potatoes as a topping.
156, Jalan Anson, 10400 George Town, Penang
Tel: +6017-572 9454
Operating hours: 7am to 4pm, Tue to Sun. Closed on Mondays.