Back in late June, Chicago lost its only pure Indonesian restaurant — Rickshaw Republic in Lincoln Park — after owner Oscar Setiawan decided to close. It was a sad moment for Setiawan, as he felt the pressure and honor of representing his culture to the city while giving tourists, diplomats, and other diners one of the only places in the Chicago area to find dishes like rendang and laksa. Rickshaw Republic gave customers a taste of Indonesia, and its decor reflected the desire to escape. However, Setiawan feared a new tenant would have no need for the restaurant’s decorations which conveyed a sense of cultural pride.
Few are traveling during the pandemic, and in many ways international food can provide a substitute, a little escape. But before Rickshaw closed, Victor Low, the owner of Serai — a Malaysian restaurant in Logan Square — stopped by and told Setiawan he could have use for the paintings and other trinkets. Indonesia and Malaysia share several cultural ties and Low knew he could use those decorations at a new project in a new location: “I told them I wanted to pay homage and they could come and visit any time,” Low says.
Six months later and Low has opened Kapitan, 2142 N. Clybourn Avenue, in Lincoln Park. Kapitan serves a branch of food from Malaysia that Serai dabbles in: Peranakan (also known as Nyonya). The food’s not new to Chicago. A Tribune story from 1989 makes mention of the food — complete with a quaint explanation of how to pronounce the word “Malay.” Peranakan, like Malaysian and Indonesian, embodies much of the Asian diaspora including China and India. Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia all have Peranakan populations.
“The menu is vast; it has rich history and rich culture,” Low says. “It speaks to some people, they long for this kind of cooking.”
As venues open and close, Kapitan is currently the only Peranakan restaurant in Chicago. Low, a native of Kuala Lumpur, says while Serai focuses on street food — the type a hawker would sell — Kapitan serves shareable plates that are more fit for a seated meal. Because COVID-19 has shut down indoor dining, takeout orders will be packed with prep kits that include instructions to properly plate and present dishes at home.
“The whole idea was to bring Malayasian food back to Chicago, it’s something that’s been missing for about eight years,” Low says.
When Serai opened in December 2015, Low says neighbors merely thought he was running a new Asian restaurant in Logan Square. They asked him for Chinese-American dishes like Kung Pao and orange chicken. When compiling a menu for Serai, Low worried if customers unfamiliar with Malaysian food would take to deep cuts, dishes he loved but ones most Americans knew nothing about. He kept the Peranakan presence at a minimum with items like Nyonya curry chicken. Lifeline items for those who cling to Chinese food remain on Serai’s menu. They serve as a gateway to Malayasian items. Low remembers telling those who like the restaurant’s three-chili chicken to “up their game” and try new items.
“If you don’t like this, I’ll offer you a refund,” Low recalls saying.
In 2019, Low traveled to Indonesia and had a revelatory moment while dining with his wife: Why didn’t Chicago have a Peranakan restaurant? Low loved items like pie tee, an appetizer filled with warm vegetables and surrounded by a crispy pastry shell. Low says it’s hard to find the proper ingredients in America for home cooks and the food takes time. Americans sometimes have trouble appreciating the labor it takes to make other culture’s foods.
Low, who arrived in America in 2004 and earned an MBA while living in Indiana, Pennsylvania, would leave in 2006 to move to Chicago’s suburbs. He lived near Penang, the area’s only Malaysian restaurant. He would eventually leave Arlington Heights for Logan Square where he fell in love with the neighborhood and opened Serai a short walk from his home. Low worries, like others within Asian communities, about how their cultures will be received within America’s European-dominated society. Is there room for their food in a country where publications and award committees are fixated on other countries? For example, Michelin inspectors for its 2020 rankings were seemingly focused on Japanese cuisine in Chicago — four out of the list’s five new restaurants serve Japanese food.
With Kapitan, Low hopes to shatter expectations and cater to a diverse customer base that includes Peranakan fans who can’t travel due to COVID-19. Low says he hears customers craving morning items and that’s why Kapitan is serving breakfast all day, with items like nasi lamak and bak kwa roti. They’re also working on a cocktail menu with drinks that will complement the food.
All in all, Low is excited about Kapitan’s future and the chance to share more of Malaysia with Chicago.
“Our long term is to be ambitious, we never will settle to be the only Malayasian restaurant in Chicago,” he says. “That was never the plan — we do not want to dominate the market. Asian food is meant to be shared. It’s about the community.”
Kapitan, 2142 N. Clybourn Avenue, open for takeout and delivery, hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday to Friday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends.