LOGAN SQUARE — It's been years since Chicago had a Malaysian restaurant. The drought is over.
Serai, located on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square, quietly opened earlier this month, becoming the city's first Malaysian restaurant to open since Penang burned down in Chinatown eight years ago.
"If I can share the joy of Malaysian food with everyone, that will be amazing," said Malaysian-born co-owner Victor Low.
Penang, the city's last Malaysian restaurant, ended up re-opening in Arlington Heights, leaving the city void.
The chefs at Serai, two of whom are partners, are from Penang — the city, not the restaurant, which is one of the largest in Malaysia and is known for its cuisine.
Serai, 2169 N. Milwaukee Ave., is tough to spot from the street, as there's only a hand-painted sign on the window. Regardless, it has already gathered a following in the short three weeks it's been open, according to Low. The restaurant was packed Wednesday night.
"We were expecting business to be slow. We expected it to be primarily Malaysians," he said. "It’s been a surprise.”
Victor Low grew up in Malaysia and hopes to share his love of Malaysian food with Chicagoans. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]
Dishes include a coconut-flavored rice dish called nasi lemak, thick yellow noodles in soy sauce called hokkien char mee and claypot tofu. On Yelp, one reviewer raved about rothi pratha, another praised an indian bread served with curry chicken while a third diner called pulat hitam, a black rice dessert with coconut milk, "perfect for winter."
The decision to open a strictly Malaysian restaurant in Logan Square rather than in Chinatown was a difficult one, according to Low, but it has paid off.
The restaurant is not on a particularly foot traffic-heavy portion of Milwaukee except for some spill-over traffic from foodies who aren't willing to weather a two-hour wait at neighboring hot spot Wasabi.
The owners figured it would take time for word to spread, especially in the winter opening during the holiday season. That has not been the case.
"People around [Logan Square] are more receptive to ethnic foods," Low said. "We can cater to more adventurous people."
The menu is filled with traditional Malaysian items, which represent a bit of a melting pot of Southeast Asian influences including Chinese, Indian and Indonesian cooking.
Low, who was born in Malaysia, moved to Chicago in his 20s to attend graduate school.
At 36, this is his first experience owning and even working in a restaurant.
He hopes the restaurant attend to Malaysian expats' homesickness while at the same time educating Chicagoans about Malaysian cooking and the country.
Low's partners are all experienced in running and cooking in Malaysian restaurants.
The restaurant is currently BYOB, but that policy will shift to a sometimes-BYOB schedule once Serai obtains a liquor license.
There is also a large patio in the back, which Serai plans to open in the spring.
"I believe that you've got to love what you do or it's not worth doing," Low said.
Mango fried rice, a traditional Malaysian dish, has been popular at Serai. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]
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