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Road Food

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Just a few hours after returning from the James Beard Awards in Manhattan, sans medal, to Laura’s folk’s house in the Philadelphia suburbs, we found ourselves once again back in our rental car and hightailing it for the heart of the City of Brotherly Love.

The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies was having one of its annual shindigs in Philly, and said shindig happened to contain, among its many revelers, my boss, Patty, and our buddy from the OC Weekly, Gustavo Arellano, who is both the food editor at that esteemed paper and the writer of the syndicated column Ask a Mexican. We’d heard that the after-party for the AAN crowd was going to be some kind of group wine-tasting of Pennsylvania wines to be held out in the blistering heat of this early Philadelphia summer, and Laura and I couldn’t let our compadres be subjected to that. Instead, we thought they’d be better served if we took them into the blistering heat (and buzzy, damp neon and hot noodle smell and otherworldly, greasy cool) of Chinatown for a late dinner at one of our favorite restaurants on the planet: Penang.

This was the place that once employed the roti thrower who later went to work at Isle of Singapore in Denver (and has since left for points unknown). It’s the place I return to again and again whenever I need a really good example of the kind of food memories that can move us throughout our entire lives. I more or less fell in love with Laura at one of Penang’s tables, on a rainy, sweaty afternoon when she kicked off work early to take me there, feed me roti canai and beef rendang and show me what she loved about the city she grew up in. It’s the restaurant I go to whenever I’m within fifty miles of it – it’s ours, mine and Laura’s, and will be for as long as it stands because it will forever be tangled up in the recollection of one of the first, best moments of our bizarre and thorny relationship.

Also, it’s just really good -- consistently packed and always loud and offering some of the best Indonesian cuisine I’ve ever had anywhere – and just a couple of short blocks from where the AAN group was partying at Constitution Hall. So after sucking up a couple of free beers from the bar, trying to choke down a godawful turkey slider with swiss cheese off a passed apps tray, being buttonholed by both a Ben Franklin impersonator and a Betsy Ross impersonator (who I swear to Christ was trying to get a little action off me, taking my arm and asking if I wanted to see her flag and everything) and sweating through my shirt while Governor Ed Rendell more or less professed to a creepy and stalker-ish crush on Hillary Clinton only slightly tempered by her recent concession speech to President-to-be Barack Obama (yeah, I’m that confident), it took virtually no effort to convince Patty and Gustavo to blow off the wine-tasting for dinner at Penang. It was a nice walk -- only about 117 degrees outside with 300 percent humidity that made every gasping inhalation like trying to breathe soup -- and we were seated as soon as we walked through the door, given beers, cold Cokes and watermelon drinks, and brought four orders of roti canai almost quicker than we could order them.

In the kitchen, the cooks worked behind a veil of shimmering heat, turning and burning like champs and buried beneath a fully-committed floor that was rolling over about once an hour. I watched the roti guy work, tossing and stretching his dough non-stop. The thin, huge, crispy rice flour pancakes were made a little chewy by the dampness of the air, but they were still excellent, dipped into the thick curry, meat and potato gravy on the side. Laura ate the same beef rendang she always does, grinning ear-to-ear the minute it arrived. Patty tried the pork buff (chops, taken off the bone, then fried and dressed in a spicy-sweet barbecue sauce, served in a massive pile big enough for two big eaters, easy) and Gustavo, ever the adventurer, had something green with shrimp and rice and vegetables that I can’t even remember the name of.

As for me, I had cold Hainanese chicken swimming in a soy broth, cut off the bone (kinda) and served with a bowl of hot sauce that was like kicked-up Sriracha with a squeeze of lime and a napalm chaser. It was awesome, perfect, delicious, and I made such a giddy mess digging into it that a succession of waitresses kept coming by the table, asking if I wanted an extra side plate, and wouldn’t quit until I agreed to take one.

Beers were drunk, conversations were had. Both Patty and Gustavo consoled me on my loss at the Beards, while Laura insisted that I completely deserved to lose because the James Beard Foundation would’ve lost all respectability had they given their medal to a guy who casually uses phrases like “Elf Pussy” and “Stupid Motherfucking Cunt-Head” in his daily work (and nominated pieces). In short, a fine time was had by all.

Or at least by Laura and me, anyhow. I kinda forgot to ask whether Patty and Gustavo had enjoyed it as much as we did as we walked out and headed off into the Chinatown night. Honestly, I was more concerned about our next stop (the weird import store that sells things like Hello Kitty cigarette lighters and packs of condoms with glow-in-the-dark pork buns on them) and then getting back to the ‘burbs in time to hit the place that makes the hoagies we like. But I’m pretty sure they did. In fact, should any of you out there in Hotcakesland ever find yourselves getting felt up by Betsy Ross and then wandering Race Street on a hot and humid night, keep Penang in mind. You might not love it as much as Laura and I do, but there’s no place on the planet where I’m happier, sitting there across from the kitchen, eating roti with my best girl, remembering the good times and making plans for more. – Jason Sheehan

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