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Do you have a favorite regional variety of taco?
A Penang Dish to Get in Line For
When you come to Penang, Malaysia, the most important thing to do is eat. Yes, there is a ton of history, incredible temples, and rich culture, but food is how you really get to know a country. Plus, eating is a national pastime for Malaysians.
The first dish you need to try is Penang assam laksa. There are various versions around the region, but you’ll only get real assam laksa in Penang.
Assam (sour) laksa is an aromatic bowl of spicy and sour soup broth loaded with slippery white noodles. The broth is made of mackerel, tamarind, and chilis, which cook for hours until the fish breaks down and forms a rich stock.
Assam laksa has 15 different ingredients, yet somehow a bowl only costs about RM6 ($1.45). Each food stall has its own secrets that have been passed down through the generations, so no matter where you go, it’s always a little different.
Once the dark red broth is ready, cooks load in the noodles and top it with slices of rose shallots, cucumber, lettuce, mint, and pineapple. Don’t just take my word for it; it’s on CNN’s list of the World’s Best Foods and was a favorite of Anthony Bourdain.
It comes with a spoonful of local black shrimp paste and small bright calamansi limes. The black shrimp paste is powerful, so taste before you dump it all in. But do add in the limes; they add a citrusy brightness to the soup.
The Doomsday Drive-Thru Feeding Providence
For its size — the population is roughly the same as Newport News, Virginia and Rancho Cucamonga, California — Providence, Rhode Island has a depth and quality to its food scene that easily rivals larger neighbors like Boston and New York. Travel + Leisure named us America’s Best City for Foodies in 2012, and America’s Favorite City in 2014. (We were GQ’s Coolest City in 2016 too, but who’s counting?)
A lot of what makes the city so excellent is that Johnson & Wales, one of the premier food and hospitality schools in the country, brings culinary talent to Providence and then sends it out into local kitchens afterwards, so we retain a lot of top chefs who otherwise might decamp to bigger markets. There are so many interesting and weird food makers here who, because they aren’t backed by anyone with deep pockets, get scrappy about how they get their food into the world. Providence has become the city of pop-ups, with established businesses welcoming up-and-coming talents to showcase their food at weekly or monthly appearances. A brewery brings in a liege waffle guy; a wine bar hosts people who make gourmet ice cream; a doughnut shop collaborates with a baker who creates croissants rolled with prosciutto, rosemary and gouda and croissant cinnamon rolls with salted caramel.
These pop-ups are proof of concept for those makers, who often raise enough capital to establish a food truck or semi-permanent location. If they’re successful enough, they graduate to brick and mortar storefronts. Then they’ll go on to host the next crop of innovators. The cycle feeds itself, and it has added texture and variety to the city’s culinary offerings that would be missing if we only had traditional restaurants.
But then came a global pandemic that shut down in-person dining. While food trucks could still serve in limited ways, and restaurants could offer takeout, there was nowhere for those pop-ups to go. Chris Wietecha, owner of Providence Bagel, and local food event planner Jamie Buscher had an idea. Wietecha’s shop, one of the only independent businesses in the city with a drive-thru, was closed by the afternoon. What if those pop-ups could use that space to cook at night, and get it into customers’ hands through the window in a low-contact way?
The Doomsday Drive-Thru was born.
“Chris and I have done a lot of community work together,” said Buscher. “When COVID happened, he immediately reached out to me wanting to help. And I thought, well, there are all of these out-of-work chefs who normally run food trucks or do pop-ups at breweries, events and concerts. I don’t see why we can’t do pop-ups with these out-of-work chefs at night.”
On weekends, smaller food operations take over the kitchen at Providence Bagel, and offer their food, through pre-orders, at the takeout window. Makers like Cuffs Counter (Nashville hot chicken sandwiches), Lost Boys Taco Shop (traditional and vegan street tacos) and Wally’s Dog Cart (hot dogs and curly fries) sell out every time they’re at the Drive-Thru — even now, six months into the pandemic, when Rhode Island is in Stage 3 of reopening and limited indoor dining is available. The concept has become so popular that it has grown to another location on the other side of the city, where speakeasy Courtland Club is also hosting walk-up and take-away food from similar makers.
“We’re offering it to [food makers] free of charge because we just want to help,” Buscher said of her and Wietecha’s project. “We want to see our restaurant community make it through this.” 🌯
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