The first thing I notice upon entering Saté Kampar is that aroma, the unmistakable ambrosia of meat sizzling over open coals.
It's a primal call. And the magnetic pull of it draws me through the old glass storefront of a former East Passyunk Avenue shoe store, past the big counter up front where someone pours coffee from cup to cup in long arcing streams, and past the street scene murals and exposed brick walls artfully patched with distressed plaster.
I stop at the back of this long and narrow dining room, where the open kitchen is framed with yellow curtains and industrial lights and where two long grill tables filled with glowing coals are topped with dozens of skewers fanned out like bouquets of roasting meat. Fragrant flickers of toasting peanut, caramelizing pineapple, vivid lemongrass, and warming chili fill the air.
Inhale. Deep breath. Hungry.
I've reviewed a wonderfully diverse collection of restaurants this year that specialize in grilled meat on sticks. Each has been remarkably distinct, from the oniony Afghan marinades of Sansom Kabob House to the yakitori glazed meats and smoke-scented heat of the robatayaki at Double Knot.
At Saté Kampar, however, co-owner Angelina Branca says it is the smokeless delicacy of their coconut shell charcoal that triggers the street food flashbacks to her childhood in Kuala Lumpur, where she helped her eldest auntie run a stall on a famous food street called Jalan Alor.
She and her husband and partner, John, prize the coconut shell charcoal so much for its dry, hot burn that they imported an entire 20-foot shipping container of it from Malaysia: "American smoke would overpower the marinade," she says.
If you've tasted either of the two sauces that are at the root of her saté here - their spices penetrating over a 24-hour marinade - you wouldn't want to do that. The more familiar and peanutty saté sauce called kajang is the result of a complex process, with slowly caramelized shallot and ginger oil layered with coriander, cumin, lemongrass, and turmeric, then house-ground peanuts that cook down just until a chili-red oil floats on top. That sauce speaks to the Malay culture that accounts for half of Malaysia's population.
You can choose your protein, and common options such as chicken and beef are perfectly delicious. But definitely do go for the goat, which has a buttery richness and gamy savor similar to lamb. And just so vegetarians don't feel neglected by my carnivorous enthusiasm, the tofu skewers were also exceptional, with crackly crusts and tender centers that had fully absorbed the marinade's flavor.
The other sauce here is a Hainanese sweet-and-sour pineapple peanut blend called melaka that pays homage to Malaysia's Chinese culture - a cuisine featured more prominently at Chinatown standbys such as Penang and Banana Leaf, whose menus appear to have surprisingly little overlap with the Malay-centric Saté Kampar. A sweet-and-zesty barbecue tang is the overall effect of this sauce, which was especially good with the pork skewers, whose tips are marked with red and cooked on a separate grill so Muslim customers can be assured their halal meats are handled separately.
Americans are usually served saté as a starter. But it can be a main event in Malaysia, says Ange. And if you've ever wanted to eat an entire meal of meat on sticks (yes, please!) this is the place to do it: they come in bundles of five or 10 skewers, for a reasonable $17 to $20.
But that would shortchange several other exceptional dishes on this concise but vivid homage to unique Malay flavors. Several come in distinctive bungkus packaging, triangular bundles of various stuffings wrapped in banana leaves and paper that are unfolded tableside with a neat flip of the server's hand.
The nasi lemak stuffed with coconut rice, crispy anchovies, and a hard-boiled egg is practically considered Malaysia's national dish, says John, a Wynnewood native who's been to Southeast Asia many times since he met and married Ange. She had come to work out at an indoor rock climbing gym he ran in the Pennsylvania suburbs, and they fell for each other. But when she left her career as an international consultant for Deloitte, IBM, and Fujitsu to become a restaurateur, she was determined to create a genuine taste of home.
That nasi lemak, with its contrast of sweet rice and crackery, fishy crunch, shows little concessions to any timid Western tastes. Likewise, the nasi ulam salad of fresh herbs brightened with sour asam gelugur fruit and sided with a crispy nest of toasted coconut shreds perfumed with funky grilled king mackerel is another delicious dish - but it takes some acclimation for the uninitiated.
Several other dishes here, though, should have immediate mass appeal, including the bungkus bundle of mee hoon vermicelli noodles tinted orange with spicy shallot-chili oil and ribbons of omelet. The slow-cooked beef rendang is tender and complex, with aromatics such as cardamom, cinnamon, and chili spice that ride atop the sweet coconut at the stew's base. The tasty ayam kurma stew of chicken and potato is milder, despite sparks of white pepper from Sarawak on Borneo in its curried brew.
Considering that the Brancas are novice restaurateurs, they have done a good job of presenting a unique concept with a casual style well-suited to this street food culture. It sometimes feels a little disjointed as a complete dining experience.
It can be a little confusing as to how to proceed through this portion of the meal, which is labeled for sharing but served only with shallow little bowls instead of larger plates to more easily partake of several at a time. Also, rice is ordered only a la carte, though, as a rule, coconut rice is an easy default. It's just so good. But if the unusual bundles made here from handwoven palm fronds called ketupat are available, the dense cubes of steamed jasmine rice inside are ideal for wiping the sauces from your plate.
Saté Kampar has some desserts worth noting, especially the earthy special of black rice pudding partially submerged beneath coconut cream like a dark archipelago. We also loved the sago, a palm starch pudding similar to tapioca that came molded into a round that burst apart into caviar-like beads when pressed with a spoon beneath a sweet drizzle of amber syrup.
The highlight of the meal's end, though, was definitely an exploration of the kopitiam, the big counter up front where Ange pays tribute to the coffee and tea shops that are a big part of Malaysian culture. Unlike many Asian countries, Malaysia has history with both - sometimes blending the two, as with the fascinating cham - dramatically hand-pulled here from cup to cup in long, milky arcs for a technique that both aerates the tannins and froths the drink.
In a city already awash in good caffeine, these are distinctive and worthwhile, especially the kopi made from oversize "elephant" coffee beans (as opposed to more common arabica) that gets roasted with sugar and sesame for a brew that's noticeably dark and nutty, even mixed with condensed milk. Blended together with tea for cham, the two flavors maintain a remarkable balance in the cup, and a deep aroma that's as beguiling as it is complex.
Inhale. Deep sip. Happy.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Suga near Rittenhouse Square.
SATÉ KAMPAR (two bells out of four)
1837 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-324-3860; on Facebook