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Serai fills Chicago's Malaysian food void

The Logan Square restaurant serves up the city’s first proper Malay cuisine in eight years.

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A friend was eating lunch with family in Kuala Lumpur a few weeks ago when he received a tweet announcing a brand-new Malaysian restaurant had opened in Chicago. It came with a photo of the restaurant's mango chicken—a sweet-spicy stir-fry of poultry, bell peppers, and onions served in a hollowed-out mango. As the phone was passed around the table loaded with homemade dishes, the family had a good snort. That's Malaysian food, eh?

Well, maybe not. There's also crab Rangoon on the menu at Logan Square's Serai, located on a relatively desolate stretch of Milwaukee Avenue. There's also pad thai, orange chicken, Indonesian gado gado, and a lot of Sichuan dishes. All are clearly not Malaysian in origin, but that's really nothing to complain about considering the city hasn't been host to a true Malaysian restaurant in the eight years since Chinatown's Penang literally went up in smoke.

That's because Serai still has a lot of Malaysian food on the menu, representing that syncretic blend of Indian, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, British, Dutch, Portuguese, and native influences. And it's good enough to skip a long trip out to Penang in Arlington Heights or Asian Noodle House in Hoffman Estates whenever you get a hankering for curry laksa, char koay teow, or Hainanese chicken and rice. Serai does all of those Malaysian classics and more, and it does them quite a lot better than its suburban competitors.

The aforementioned chicken-and-rice dish originated with southern Chinese immigrants but was adapted all over southeast Asia. And yet a decent version is hard to come by in Chicago. Serai may have captured the lead in that arena by offering a boiled and blanched bird with flabby, fatty skin, hacked and arrayed on the plate with a garlicky, gingery sauce and the all-important rice, infused with the richness of the bird's boiling medium. Who performs that crucial last step anywhere else in town?

Other worthy benchmarks of Malaysian cuisine include the Indian-style roti pratha, shreds of soft and crispy coconut-scented flatbread meant to be dipped in a thick, sweet red curry with potatoes and chicken. There's char koay teow, wide, flat noodles that carry the proverbial "breath of the wok" smokiness, tossed with tensile shrimp and squid and seasoned with sweet soy and chile. And there's nasi goreng, fried rice with the pungent shrimp paste belacan, tempered by the wok's heat to produce a satisfying background funk, and crowned by a crispy whole omelet with a creamy interior. The chefs aren't shy about using that belacan. You can also find it in the kang kung belacan, stir-fried with water spinach, where it serves as a foil to the bright vegetal greens, redemption for the rich curries you're enjoying.

It's not everywhere, though. You might swear you pick it up in the spicy lamb rendang. But that's probably fish sauce playing along with the gaminess of the extraordinarily tender dry-braised meat and the bouquet of coconut milk and aromatic spices that wafts up from the banana leaf on which it's plated. Another lamb dish, a whole fall-off-the-bone shank drenched in a sweet, thin curry is bright in comparison.

Don't come expecting extremes in acidity and chile heat. The flavors are softer, rounder, and sweeter, even in ostensibly spicy dishes like sambal eggplant, cooked so soft the vegetables just barely maintain structural integrity, coated in a sharp but not painful chile sauce. Same goes for a beef panang curry, thick with coconut, sweet with sugar, and warm—not hot—with spice. It's a profile similar to the laksa, the Chinese-Malay curry noodle soup, swimming with shrimp, chicken, fish balls, tofu, hard-cooked eggs, barbecued pork, and bean sprouts, and crowded with long, thin ramen-style egg noodles.

Those noodles also appear in a version of niu rou mian, the Taiwanese beef-noodle soup. It's a flat, one-dimensional broth unaided by the requisite pickled greens, demonstrating that the kitchen is less dependably adept at strictly non-Malaysian dishes. Far more exciting is the Indonesian soup soto madura, which is hot and sour and beefy. Meanwhile a heaping pile of deep-fried Sichuan-style three-chile fish fillets is so sweet and crunchy it belongs in a supermarket snack aisle.

Of the two desserts on the menu, only one was available on my visits: pulut hilam, a scarfable bowl of steaming, inky-black rice ringed by a moat of warm, salted coconut milk. The salt is a nicely surprising contrast to the subtly sweet rice.

With all the various cuisines represented at Serai there's a lot to explore. It almost reads like a typical Chinatown menu, one where it might take weeks to pinpoint the gems. Still, it's safe to say the Malaysian stuff is where you ought to direct your attention first.  v

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