Tek Sen (Est. 1965) is perhaps Penang’s best-known “choo char” spot (a casual Chinese “cooked food” establishment known in HK as a “dai pai dong”, in KL as “dai chow” and Singapore as “cze char”). Offering local Penang-Chinese dishes (including a few distinct Nyonya-influenced ones), Tek Sen draws in not only the local, but also foreign diners, having been mentioned in foreign publications like Lonely Planet and New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/travel/36-hours-penang-malaysia.html).
Tek Sen began as an open-air eatery in 1965, founded and named after Mr Choo Teik Seng, who started a very “lau eeah” (local Hokkien term meaning “dilapidated”) wooden shack serving mixed rice to labourers and trishaw pedalers. Their sons, Choo Sam Ken and Choo Sam Chong then helped their parents “upgrade” the makeshift premises into a corrugated zinc-roofed eatery, with stainless steel table tops in the 1980s. It’s still a very humble eatery - no air-conditioning since the Choos believed that’ll make the dishes “kuai leng, bo phang”, i.e. Hokkien for “cool-off the dishes too fast, hence no aroma”.
These days, the rather spartan-looking (and perpetually packed) restaurant on Carnarvon Street is virtually unrecognizable from its humble beginnings - occupying two large shophouses … but, still not air-conditioned. The food is still very good, packing in some very traditional Penang-Chinese flavours, but the prices are higher than most other similar places in town.
The best time to arrive at Tek Sen for lunch is at 12 noon when it opens its doors, before the intimidating lunch crowd hits it at around 12.30pm-1pm. Business was relatively quiet yesterday (Monday) and there were only 4 other tables already occupied by the time we got there a bit past noon: a large table of Mainland Chinese tourists, a Taiwanese family of 3, a table of 4 Indonesian-Chinese businessmen, and a Penang-Chinese couple. Always interesting to be able to hear the different Chinese dialects and accents used in one spot: we hardly get to experience this in HK or Shanghai or Taipei, which tend to be monolingual. Penang seemed so cosmopolitan, so it’s hardly a surprise.
Our lunch spread:
- Double-cooked roast pork with chilli padi - perhaps Tek Sen’s best-known dish: chopped-up Chinese roast pork stir-fried in dark soysauce, sugar and “chilli padi” (small, fiery-hot birds’ eye chillis) till it’s caramelly-sweet, savoury and with a hint of spiciness.
- Stingray “assam pedas” - a spicy-sour Nyonya-influenced soup-stew dish, done extremely well here. Pieces of very fresh stingray are cooked with okra, tomatoes, onions and torch-ginger is a turmeric-galangal-tamarind-chilli soup. It’s the best rendition of this dish I’d tasted in Penang.
- Stir-fried sweet potato leaves with “sambal belacan” and shrimps - this is a classic Penang-Nyonya dish: sweet potato leaves are cooked till wilted and soft (it’s very similar in texture to spinach), flavoured with garlic, shallots, dried shrimps, “sambal belachan” (fermented shrimp paste and red chillis) and fresh, de-shelled shrimps.
- Sam wong tan - a Cantonese dish of custardy-smooth steamed eggs. As the name implies, three types of eggs are used - hen’s egg, century egg and salted duck’s egg. Very well done here.
- Braised pork-ribs with fermented black beans - a daily special dish. The fermented black beans lend a complex depth to the dish, already piquant from Chinese 5-spice and other condiments used.
- Braised fried tofu, topped with shrimps, dried scallops and egg-white - another Cantonese-influenced dish. It was the weakest of all the dishes we ordered: bland-ish, strictly for tofu-lovers like me but, otherwise, not a must-order.
Tek Sen may not have the tastiest kind of “cooked food” I’d had in George Town - Hing Kee in China Street is my personal fave, whilst Hai Ching in Balik Pulau and Ah Chui in Paya Terubong are capable of turning out dishes which are just as good. But Tek Sen has two things going for it: consistency and accessibility. Not to be missed.
Tek Sen Restaurant (徳成飯店)
18, Lebuh Carnarvon
10100 George Town, Penang
Tel: +6012-981 5117
Opening hours: 12 noon-2.30pm, 6pm-8.30pm, daily except Tuesday (closed)