Ange Branca strides into the chilly dusk eight floors above the city, the smell of Malaysian saté sizzling over coconut coals behind her on the terrace of Irwin’s at the BOK Building. She mingles with guests to this pop-up, sharing stories behind her parade of colorful dishes. And she’s remarkably upbeat despite her current status of impermanence.
“My heritage is Hakka-Chinese and they’re nomadic,” she says. “I have (pop-ups) in my blood.”
She closed Saté Kampar in late June, the Malaysian grill house she owned with husband, John Branca. So she’s now one of several great chefs cut adrift during the pandemic. But Ange, who left a corporate career to showcase her passion for her homeland’s flavors, refuses to let her culinary mission drop.
She spent a month cooking for frontline workers. Then came a summer of pop-ups, from the Fitler Club to Musi, the Goat, Pocono Organics Farm, and Walnut Street Cafe. Greatest hits from those unfold in the tasting at Irwin’s, revealing how deep her repertoire is beyond saté, which is also featured. A banana leaf platter with a checkerboard of blue and yellow rice cubes comes with a trio of ferments — spicy durian purée with okra crudité, fish cured in tamarind rice powder, punchy mustard greens — that set my taste buds spinning.
Then comes a deep-fried spot, whose exposed bones and butterflied fillets crunch like a fish-shaped cracker. Smoked short ribs braised in coconut-turmeric curry. Babi buah keluak pork ribs lavished in a black sauce of mangrove swamp nuts. Blended with sambal and lemongrass, its bittersweet fruitiness and chocolaty spice recall a smoky mole.
Such haunting flavors still figure prominently in Ange’s future — a coming series of sambals, sauces, and meal kits to go. Perhaps a new restaurant, too. But the pandemic limbo force is strong, concedes Ange: “I just don’t know when that’s going to happen.”
— Craig LaBan