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Saté Kampar is like traveling across the globe

Saté Kampar is among Craig LaBan's best of Philadelphia.

Gloria Lin opens up the Nasilemak Bungkus after food was served to her table at Sate Kampar.
Gloria Lin opens up the Nasilemak Bungkus after food was served to her table at Sate Kampar.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

There are a few places in the city where crossing the threshold is like traveling across the globe. Saté Kampar is one, transporting on the ambrosia of Malaysian skewered meats sizzling over coals.

The magnetic pull of the exotic aromas — toasting peanut, caramelizing pineapple, lemongrass, and warming chili — draws one into a former East Passyunk Avenue shoe store, past a counter where milky sweet Malaysian coffee is poured from cup to cup in long arcing streams, and back to the open kitchen, where grill tables filled with glowing coconut-shell coals are topped with roasting bouquets of skewered meats.

The scene triggers flashbacks for co-owner Angelina Branca, who as a girl in Kuala Lumpur helped her family run a food stall. After meeting her husband, Wynnewood native John Branca, she left her career in international consulting to recreate that vision of Malaysia at this BYOB.

Some of the flavors, like the nasi lemak coconut rice stuffed with crispy anchovies, may be challenging to uninitiated American taste buds. But Ange's earnest determination to present a genuine taste of her homeland is a big part of Saté Kampar's appeal.

The saté — the main event with mix-and-match proteins and two essential sauces — has easy mass appeal. The more familiar peanutty saté sauce called kajang is complex, layering caramelized shallots, lemongrass, spices, and ginger oil with ground peanuts cooked down until a chili-red oil floats on top. That sauce speaks to the Malay culture that accounts for half of Malaysia's population. And it's perfectly great with familiar options like chicken and beef. But also try the goat, which has a buttery richness and slightly gamier savor than lamb, though at times (like my last visit) can be chewy. Pork skewers are my choice for the other sauce, melaka, a Hainanese sweet-and-sour pineapple-peanut blend that pays homage to Malaysia's Chinese influence.

You can easily fill up on saté, which comes in bundles of five or 10 skewers. But don't miss some other exceptional dishes. Tender beef rendang is infused cardamom, chili spice, and coconut. Curried ayam kurma chicken stew is milder, despite sparks of Borneo white pepper. On special days, Branca digs deeper into tradition for tamarind fish-head stews, coveted chili crabs sauced in an addictively funky seafood sauce ribboned with egg, a rotating array of curried laksa noodles, and a rare nasi kerabu platter, whose rice tinted sky blue with butterfly pea flowers beside a curry-fried chicken should soon become a hit.

A tender cube of pork belly in sweet tung poh yoke sauce, earthy goat consommé and sambal chicken wings were among my favorite specials on a recent visit.

Some of my favorite dishes, though, aren't dishes at all, but the portable triangular packages made of banana leaves called bungkus, which servers unfold tableside with a neat flick of the hand. Inside, you may discover nasi lemak, rendang, or mee hoon vermicelli tinted orange with punchy chili oil and ribbons of omelet.

Wash it down with a distinctive cup of frothy cham — equal parts coffee and tea — and take satisfaction in knowing this Branca-guided tour of Malaysia has only just begun.