What’s cookin’ in and around Chicago? Here’s a closer look at one of the area’s delicious dishes you don’t want to miss.

A customer once made a passing remark to Serai owner Victor Low about how Malaysian food would never be considered “high end” because it’s just street food. The comment didn’t sit well with Low, a native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

So, in hopes of showcasing a unique and more sophisticated style of Malaysian cuisine, Low transformed an abandoned nightclub in Lincoln Park into Kapitan, Chicago’s only Peranakan restaurant, which opened in mid-December.

The Ramly burger is served at Kapitan restaurant in Chicago.

The Ramly burger is served at Kapitan restaurant in Chicago.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Peranakan, or Nyonya, cuisine is influenced by Malay, Chinese and Indonesian cultures. It has a rich history dating back to the 1400s. Kapitan features many takes on traditional Peranakan dishes, such as Nyonya curry laksa lemak, a spicy noodle soup, and Ayam Kapitan, which is chicken curry.

“There is no other restaurants in Chicago that does this and we believe there’s barely any restaurants in the U.S. that actually focus on this one cuisine similar to what we do,” Low said. “And that was the whole purpose — [we’re] trying to show a different side of Malaysian cuisine that is also heritage food, that has a very complete different taste profile all together.”

The customer’s comment didn’t single handedly inspire the opening of Kapitan. In fact, the idea of opening his newest restaurant was sparked on his most recent trip home after going to a Peranakan restaurant with his wife. After returning home, they added more Peranakan style food to Serai’s menu.

The response to those additions was overwhelming, Low said. Many people who are from Malaysia or lived there would tell him about how much they “missed this food” and couldn’t imagine having it in Chicago.

“All Malaysians know what this cuisine is all about,” he said. “We’re trying to share that experience… It’s hard to tell people the taste palette [is], without bringing them there. Now with this, they can sit down, ‘This is what I used to have.’ And the taste and food is very close to what we have back home.”

One of Kapitan’s most popular dishes is the Ramly burger, which isn’t a traditional Peranakan dish, though it has roots to Malaysia, Low said. The burger was created in the 1980s when McDonald’s first entered into Malaysia, a majority Islam-practicing country. Since McDonald’s didn’t serve halal meat at the time, entrepreneur Ramly bin Mokni sought out to create a fast-food chain that did.

“Burger wasn’t a thing back in Malaysia and he found success with it,” Low said.

Kapitan’s take on the Ramly burger includes a grilled angus beef patty smothered in the chef’s “secret sauce,” which contains soy sauce, black pepper and a combination of spices. The patty is wrapped in an egg omelette and served on a a standard bun with lettuce, tomato and an aioli.

“The main thing that makes a difference is how the patty is prepared, which is truly the chef’s special sauce,” said Low, who added that he’s not even quite sure how to make the sauce.

Kapitan, 2142 N. Clybourn Ave. The Ramly Burger is $11.95. Visit kapitanchicago.com.

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